Half of physicians now using telehealth as COVID-19 changes practice operations

Close to half of doctors are now using telehealth to treat patients as the COVID-19 pandemic changes practice patterns and how physicians deliver care.

That's up from 18% of physicians using telemedicine two years ago, based on The Physicians Foundation’s "2018 Survey of America's Physicians."

In this latest physician survey, Merritt Hawkins, a physician search company, found that the use of telemedicine has been rapidly accelerated by the COVID-19 epidemic, which has spurred changes to reimbursement policies that had previously limited its use. 

CMS also agreed to pay physicians for patient visits that take place by telephone to help practices stay open by providing them with needed revenue.

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"The impact on physicians from COVID-19 is going to be transformative," said Travis Singleton, executive vice president of Merritt Hawkins, in a statement. "The way patients access physicians and how and where physicians practice will fundamentally change."

One positive result of the pandemic is that barriers to accessing physician services through telemedicine may be reduced, Singleton noted. And that will be critical as the nation deals with a growing physician shortage.

The Physicians Foundation, American Medical Association, Florida Medical Association, Massachusetts Medical Society and Texas Medical Association recently launched The Telehealth Initiative, which helps physicians implement telehealth services. The initiative provides free, online access to resources to encourage all physicians to consider telehealth services in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Merritt Hawkins surveyed more than 800 physicians in collaboration with The Physicians Foundation as a brief “pulse check” to determine how doctors are being affected by and responding to COVID-19.

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About one-third of survey respondents (34%) practice primary care medicine (family medicine, general internal medicine, pediatrics) while two-thirds (64%) are surgical, medical and diagnostic specialists and subspecialists. 

The majority of physicians (60%) who are not seeing COVID-19 patients are willing to do so, suggesting that the physician workforce has extra capacity to bring to bear on the pandemic, the survey found. Many doctors seem willing to assume the risk and responsibilities of treating those infected with the virus.

Fewer than half of doctors (38%) report they are seeing coronavirus patients, while the majority said they are not seeing COVID-19 patients or are unsure.

While CMS and commercial payers have changed telehealth reimbursement policies to support providers during the outbreak, it might not be enough to keep some practices afloat.

Medical practices continue to report concerns about keeping their doors open due to financial pressures. 

A substantial minority of physicians (32%) said they plan to change practice settings, leave patient care roles, temporarily shut their practices or retire in response to COVID-19, the Merritt Hawkins survey found.

This should be of particular concern to hospitals and other healthcare organizations already struggling with physician shortages and turnover, according to Singleton.   

“Once the pandemic has been contained there will be a backlog of procedures and pervasive COVID-19 testing. Physician re-engagement and retention will be of even more importance,” he said.

Nearly half of independent medical practices report they have had to furlough or lay off staff, according to a survey from the Medical Group Management Association released earlier this month.

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The survey, which garnered 724 responses from medical practices between April 7 and 8, found practices have seen an average 60% drop in patient volume on average and a 55% decrease in revenue since the beginning of the public health crisis. 

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians were expressing dissatisfaction in their jobs and experiencing high rates of burnout and mental health issues caused by stressors like regulatory burdens and electronic health record use, noted Gary Price, M.D., president of The Physicians Foundation. 

"The pandemic is straining physicians further and we need to prioritize providing solutions that will ease the financial and emotional burdens they are feeling as a means to improve their wellbeing now and after the crisis is resolved," Price said in a statement. "It is the least we can do for the health care workers who are risking their lives to take care of everyone else."