The New Normal – Learning from the Pandemic and Preparing for the Future

Physician practices have had to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in many ways, from limiting the number of people in waiting areas to greatly expanding their use of telemedicine to care for patients at home.

As the situation with the pandemic continues to evolve, your practice will need to refine its own efforts to function in this “new normal.” You may even want to consider making permanent changes to be better prepared for similar crises in the future. Here are some steps to consider, based on recent experience.

Evaluate your overhead

Although the typical number of patients varies from specialty to specialty, many medical practices saw business slow significantly during the initial weeks or months of the pandemic. This was not only because patients were urged (or forced) to postpone nonurgent care, but also out of fear of being exposed to the virus. In the meantime, physician practices — like so many businesses — found themselves trying to figure out how to pay the bills.

Some property owners and mortgage companies offered relief for limited periods of time. But one lesson to consider now is whether, the pandemic aside, your overhead is manageable. Are you operating out of a cost-effective space? If telemedicine is going to become a greater part of your practice, is your space still appropriate for your needs? Could you lower utility costs?

Stick with telemedicine

Although only time will tell, many believe the increased use of telemedicine during the pandemic will lead to increased use of the technology afterward. There is even the potential that Congress will feel pressure to address the reimbursement disparities in telemedicine.

If, like most practices, you’ve increased your use of telemedicine, expect this to continue — so gear up to get better at it. This may involve finding and implementing a more affordable and/or functional technology platform, as well as obtaining new certifications for telemedicine as required. (Some certification requirements were suspended during the height of the pandemic, but it seems unlikely this will continue indefinitely.) In addition, you and your management team will want to stay informed about the reimbursement aspects of telemedicine (providing clinical care remotely) and telehealth (providing a wider range of remote health care services, including nonclinical care).

Re-evaluate procurement

During the first weeks of the crisis, many medical practices had staff members who were unwilling to interact directly with patients for fear of catching COVID-19. One major and well-publicized reason for this was the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Physician practices, along with hospitals, of course, have learned tough lessons in the state of the global supply chain and how to obtain PPE. Be sure to document the steps you’ve taken to get the supplies you need and to continue improving your procurement processes.

Be prepared for residual effects

It’s widely believed that many people have delayed getting health care during the pandemic, partly to avoid the virus and partly out of concern for overworked medical facilities. This has left many physicians worried that the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be accompanied by a second, hidden pandemic of additional afflictions — one caused by bad diets, lack of exercise, unfilled prescriptions, increased stress and ignored medical conditions. Many people losing jobs — and, therefore, health insurance — will likely exacerbate matters.

In fact, cardiologists have already noted lower hospital volumes for heart attacks, and neurologists have reported seeing fewer strokes. Most likely, this is because people have been avoiding going to the hospital — even in the worst situations. And these sorts of health care conditions, as well as less severe ones, are probably going to come home to roost.

So, it’s important to be prepared for longer hours — as well as additional staffing and PPE to handle a potential influx of patients as COVID-19 cases perhaps ebb but others surge.

Flexibility — and creativity

As you more than likely know, it took incredible courage, flexibility and a certain amount of creativity to continue treating patients when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit. It also required expanding the role of health care providers to consider many nonclinical factors — such as anxiety, medical illiteracy, transportation, housing and food insecurity. As we carry on into the new normal, look for opportunities to improve every aspect of your practice.

Creating a disaster preparedness plan

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, every practice should have a disaster preparedness plan in place. It should account for relatively common natural disasters (such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and fires), as well as any other type of disaster (such as another global pandemic) that might make it difficult to run the practice for days, weeks or months. A typical disaster preparedness plan includes:

  • A call tree that describes who contacts whom in the event of a disaster,
  • A method for staff to communicate without a wireless network or cellular data,
  • A way to secure patient records, diagnostic testing and a list of outstanding tests,
  • Guidelines for HIPAA compliance,
  • A certificate of insurance for medical malpractice coverage or a way to contact your agent directly to acquire proof of coverage,
  • Proof that home health agencies taking care of your patients have plans to provide appropriate service in a disaster,
  • Procedures to follow upon returning from evacuation, and
  • An alternate location in case the primary location is totally, or partially, destroyed.

If you have any questions, please contact Deirdre Hartmann or Harlene Stevens at (973) 298-8500. 

© 2020