Half of US physicians using telemedicine amid pandemic, survey finds

By | April 23, 2020

Dive Brief:

  • In response to the coronavirus pandemic, close to half (48%) of all U.S. physicians are now treating patients through telemedicine, up from 18% in 2018, according to new data from Merritt Hawkins.
  • Of the 842 physicians surveyed, 32% said they will change practice settings, leave patient care roles, temporarily shut their practices or retire after the pandemic eases. So far, 21% of those physicians reported being furloughed or experiencing a pay cut.
  • Travis Singleton, executive vice president of Merritt Hawkins, told Healthcare Dive the findings are similar to what he saw among physicians during the 2008 recession. “That was the last time we heard from physicians in these numbers that said, ‘You know what, we’re going to do all these things,'” he said. “And unfortunately they did it — it wasn’t just venting.”​

Dive Insight:

As the U.S. healthcare system struggles to keep up with the raging pandemic, the cancellation of thousands of routine procedures and visits has resulted in hospitals and practices trying to rein in costs by instituting pay cuts or furloughs. At the same time, national social distancing measures have led to more healthcare services being delivered online through virtual care platforms, making patient care less hands-on and necessitating more technological savvy from consumers and doctors alike.

CMS expanded traditional Medicare to reimburse for a greater range of telehealth services in mid-March, while the Trump administration said it would not enforce HIPAA privacy stipulations, allowing medical visits to take place over common video platforms like Skype and Facetime. Major commercial payers have also waived co-pays or otherwise expanded telehealth reimbursement over the past two months.

The moves quickly accelerated virtual care adoption among both patients and providers, which have scrambled to build up their telemedicine infrastructure. But despite heavily investments in the technology, it’s uncertain whether remote care capacities will be able to meet sustained demand, as vendors like Teladoc and AmWell report huge spikes in volume.

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Singleton said the survey’s findings should be of particular concern to hospitals and other healthcare organizations already struggling with physician shortages and turnover.

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

The consolidation of independent practices into behemoth health systems over the past decade is another issue that could exacerbate healthcare staffing concerns. “Ten years ago, physicians were not employed. When you went to your local health system, the doctor you saw was actually a collection of independent practices,” Singleton said. 

“Before when you got upset, you owned a building, equipment, patient panels, you couldn’t just walk out the door,” he said. “Now, you can.”

Despite the overall findings, the survey found that healthcare workers do still want to help where they’re needed. Of the physicians who are currently not treating COVID-19 patients, 60% are willing to do so and one-third (34%) have more time due to the decline in office visits resulting from the pandemic.

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