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Pandemic Fallout: 16,000 Physicians Close Practices After Staff and Income Reductions

A nationwide Merritt Hawkins study shows the impact of the pandemic, and 86 percent of physicians say pandemic will not end this year.
By Jenny Rudolph |
Doctor stethoscope iStock

Dallas-based physician search agency Merritt Hawkins found that 59 percent of physicians think COVID-19 will cause independent physician practices to close in its national biennial survey. Approximately 16,000 practices have already closed, across the country and 43 percent of physicians reduced staff, according to the Survey of America’s Physicians.

While nearly three-quarters of physicians have experienced some reduction in income, 55 percent of physicians have experienced income loss of 26 percent or more, according to the survey. With elective procedures being canceled for long stretched of time in many areas, and patients fearful of going to the doctor’s office, many practices have suffered. Most have transitioned to virtual visits, but the distance limits what treatment can be done and the billing that goes along with it.

Many practices turned to Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) support to combat the financial effects of COVID-19. Of the physicians who applied for PPP support, 75 percent indicated that they received sufficient support for their practices to remain open, according to the survey.

The survey found that 86 percent of physicians think the virus will persist through January, and nearly half of physicians think COVID-19 won’t be under control until June of 2021.

While many practices have enforced social distancing and new risk mitigations to combat potential spread during in-person appointments, 12 percent of practices rely on meeting patients remotely. Approximately 100,000 physicians have primarily moved towards telemedicine, showing a rapid 160 percent increase since 2018. An additional 52 percent of physicians plan to increase use of telemedicine, according to the survey.

Despite this rapid change in telemedicine, 72 percent of physicians indicated that they do not think the widespread use of telemedicine will continue. The majority of physicians said that rates for telemedicine visits do not compare to in-person appointments, according to the survey.

“We are living through a historical shift in the way we practice and how we deliver care to patients,” said Gary Price, president of The Physicians Foundation. “Our health care landscape is constantly changing right now, and we expect it will be radically different for both physicians and our patients long after the pandemic passes.”

About three-quarters of physicians responded that the virus will have negative consequences on patients who delay receiving care to stay inside their homes. 76 percent of physicians indicated that COVID-19 related employment changes also present a serious harm to patients who may lose access to health insurance, according to the survey.

The survey concluded that the majority of physicians think opening schools, businesses, and public places presents a greater long-term risk to patients. About 59 percent of physicians indicated that opening the public posed the risk of a second spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Despite COVID-19’s health risks, 96 percent of physicians responded that they do not plan to leave the health care industry. “Physicians are the foundation of our health care system, and those on the frontlines of the pandemic are evidence of this fact as they continue to care for their patients, families, and colleagues,” said Robert Seligson, CEO of The Physicians Foundation.

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