Among the many challenges brought by COVID-19 the pandemic also has shone a spotlight on the importance of primary care providers.
“Amid COVID, we've seen that a patient's relationship with their primary care provider is paramount," Clive Fields, M.D., co-founder and chief medical officer of VillageMD, told Fierce Healthcare.
A fast-growing operator of primary care clinics, the company has 2,800 employed or partner primary care providers across nine markets. The company's clinics, called Village Medical, offer preventative care, treatment for illness and injury, chronic conditions and telehealth services.
The company is growing its footprint in Houston, recently announcing plans to open four new Village Medical primary care clinics in the Houston, Cypress and Shenandoah, Texas, areas. The primary care company now operates 39 clinics in the Houston area in addition to clinics in Austin, Atlanta, Chicago, Murray, Kentucky, Northfield, New Jersey., Westland, Michigan., Phoenix and Rhode Island.
“The expansion is to meet the needs of an underserved community,” Fields said. “There is a direct relationship between primary care and the ability to drive down cost and improve population issues.”
He added, "The providers joining Village Medical share our passion for delivering excellent patient services and driving better health outcomes. We're looking forward to treating more patients in the Houston area."
The healthcare startup is just one of many in the growing primary care market, now valued at $260 billion.
In April 2019, as a pilot project, Walgreens and VillageMD teamed up to open five new 2,500-square-foot primary care clinics next to Walgreens stores in the Houston area. After early success, the businesses announced expansion.
At the end of 2020, VillageMD and Walgreens decided to speed up their original plans and open 40 new primary care clinics by the end of the summer of 2021, with a goal of opening as many as 500 in the next five years. Walgreens executives said the pandemic was an “accelerator” for its VillageMD plans.
Changing primary care landscape
Pre-pandemic, the business of primary care had many challenges that needed to be addressed. So, when the government started supplying regulatory relief and payment reform, along with an increased push for the use of technology, providers were able to see many changes for the better, according to Fields.
For example, Fields notes that many clinics struggled with telehealth reimbursement before COVID-19.
“But we learned it can be achieved when it’s in the best interest of patients,” he said.
While there was a giant spike in telehealth due to the pandemic, Fields projects telehealth will ultimately comprise between 15% to 20% of all future Village Medical visits.
Moving forward, he expects that primary care will be a hybrid model, combining technology and brick-and-mortar patient visits, especially for patients with chronic diseases.
“People are looking to see if the technology will replace physicians and that is unlikely to happen,” Fields said. “The best use with the greatest impact is to use telehealth between in-person doctor visits.”
While Fields knows it is a long road to increasing broad-based, universally accessible primary care, VillageMD hopes to be a part of solving the problem.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, patients infected with the virus who reached out to VillageMD clinics, in-person or virtual, experienced 50% fewer hospital admissions or re-admissions than patients who did not use the services, he said.
These results show the importance of how primary care can drive down healthcare costs and improve outcomes.
Ultimately, he said, a change in the U.S. healthcare system will require an ongoing investment by the government, providers, companies and payment models, with a stress on quality versus quantity of visits.
Field’s co-founder, Tim Barry, refers to healthcare reform as being in its eighth year in a 100-year journey, but the VillageMD team believes they can be disruptive enough to accelerate change.
“We’ve taken on a difficult task, but it’s worth it,” Fields said.