Fewer than 10% of primary care practices have stabilized operations amid COVID-19 pandemic

Doctor in mask shows a tablet to a patient in a mask.
Only 13% of primary care clinicians say they are adapting to a “new normal” in the protracted pandemic, a recent survey found. (Getty/FG Trade)

Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer than 10% of U.S. primary care practices have been able to stabilize operations.

Nearly 9 in 10 primary care practices continue to face significant difficulties with COVID-19, including obtaining medical supplies, meeting the increasing health needs of their patients, and finding sufficient resources to remain operational, according to a recent survey of close to 600 primary care clinicians in 46 states.

Only 13% of primary care clinicians say they are adapting to a “new normal” in the protracted pandemic, the survey found.

More than four months into the pandemic and at a time when 39 states are experiencing an increase of COVID-19 cases, fewer than 4 in 10 clinicians feel confident and safe with their access to personal protective equipment, according to the survey from the Larry A. Green Center in partnership with the Primary Care Collaborative, which was conducted July 10 to July 13.

Among the primary care clinicians surveyed, 11% report that staff in their practice have quit in the last four weeks over safety concerns.

A primary care provider in Ohio said this: "The 'I can do 4-6 weeks of this' transition to 'this feels like a new/permanent normal' is crushing and demoralizing. Ways to build morale when everyone is at a computer workstation away from other staff (and patients) feels impossible."

RELATED: Primary care doctors say they are not ready for next COVID-19 surge

"In the first few months of the pandemic, the country pulled together to stop the spread of the virus, and it seemed like we were making progress. Primary care clinicians and practices were working hard, against tremendous challenges,” said Rebecca Etz, Ph.D., co-director of The Larry A. Green Center in a statement.

"But now the country is backsliding, and it’s clear that primary care doesn’t have enough strength to deal with the rising number of cases. If primary care were a COVID-19 patient, it would be flat on its back," Etz said.

The survey conducted by the Larry A. Green Center is part of an ongoing series looking at the attitudes of primary care clinicians and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic and the abilities of practices to meet patients’ needs.

Close to 40% of primary care providers report they are maxed out with mental exhaustion and 18% say they spend each week wondering if their practice or job will still be there next week.

RELATED: Providers press Senate to add $100B in relief funds in next COVID-19 package

In addition to feeling stressed, clinicians and their practices are also experiencing upheaval. The survey found that 22% of clinicians report skipped or deferred salaries, and 78% report preventive and chronic care is being deferred or delayed by patients. 

Primary care clinicians report that 42% of in-person volume is down but overall contact with patients is high, while 39% report not being able to bill for the majority of work delivered, the survey found.

"Given the rapidly rising infection rates and persistent lack of PPE, more than a third of primary care clinicians are reporting feeling unsafe at the office, and 20% are cutting back on face-to-face visits while doing more remote outreach,” said Ann Greiner, president and CEO of the Primary Care Collaborative in a statement.

RELATED: House telehealth leaders move to cement regulatory changes for virtual care

Greiner said this is a clear signal that payers must advance or retain parity for telehealth and telephonic calls.

"It also is a clarion call to move to a new payment system that doesn’t rely on face-to-face visits and that is prospective so practices can better manage patient care," she said.

Providers say they need more support from private insurers, particularly when it comes to reimbursing for telehealth and telephone visits. 

According to the survey, a primary care doctor in Illinois said, "Recently told we would not be able to conduct telephone visits due to lack of reimbursement. I work in a low-income Medicare population which has low health literacy and no technology literacy. We were 80% telephone and 20% Zoom and in-office. This further exemplifies the extreme health care disparities in the U.S."

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