In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many medical practices saw a significant decline in appointments and revenues. Patients delayed both routine and urgent care in fear of contracting COVID-19. The Texas Medical Association reported 68% of practicing physicians in the state reduced their work hours due to COVID-19. Similarly, a study by the Commonwealth Fund published on April 23 revealed a 60% decrease in visits to ambulatory care practices across the United States.
To date, in-person visits appear to be rebounding across all specialties and practice sizes. The return to in-patient visits has been measured but largely consistent across state lines.
Due to the increasing adoption of telehealth and virtual visits, physicians could see a return of patients for wellness, preventive, and chronic care. The Primary Care Collaborative and Larry A Green Center recently reported that 35% of primary care patients indicated they were overdue for a wellness appointment, another 32% were behind on preventative care, and 19% for chronic care.
As patients trickle back in—virtually or in-person—they’ll be helping to shape the new landscape of internal medicine.
How to Help Patients Return to Internal Medicine Practices
Managing the return of patients will require careful planning in conjunction with CDC guidelines and resource changes. Waiting rooms look quite different in the age of COVID-19.
Practices have removed extra chairs or added signage to indicate certain spaces are unavailable. Gone are waiting room fixtures like brochures and magazines, replaced instead with television monitors and video screens. Face coverings and temperature screenings are required for entry. Many practices are making use of hallways and other unoccupied areas to provide more social-distancing space. Patients are often asked to wait in their cars instead of waiting rooms, and spouses or support members are not permitted to join them.
Internal medicine providers are giving first priority to high-risk patients and those requiring chronic care when scheduling appointments. Telehealth remains an effective tactic to ensure more patients receive care while reducing foot traffic. But, practices must continue to educate patients on how to best use these services. “Primary care has really converted to a virtual specialty overnight,” says Russell S. Phillips, MD, Director of the Center for Primary Care at Harvard Medical School.
As some of the most trusted care providers, internal medicine physicians face questions and worries about COVID-19, including the potential availability of a vaccine. As of December 2020. the WHO has identified 100 vaccine candidates, of which many are in human clinical trials. The health care system is considering how to best prioritize vaccination schedules and achieve widespread immunization. Some experts are calling for internal medicine practices to offer the vaccine in-house, similar to flu shots each fall.
In the meantime, physicians are urged to educate patients on the importance of the vaccine in an effort to overcome potential hesitancy or reluctance. Poll results reported in November 2020 indicate that only 58% of Americans plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Patient portals provide a secure and automated means to help convince patients. They also allow physicians to share reminders for appointments or upcoming immunizations. As practices continue to monitor for potential COVID-19 cases, patient portals can provide the first line of defense for self-symptom screening and reporting.
The impending flu season presents additional logistical and care challenges for internal medicine physicians. The FDA recently authorized a combination flu and COVID-19 test, designed to provide faster results and preserve critical resources. While this test will help to speed up the diagnosis timeline, physicians should be prepared to carefully monitor patients for potential symptoms of the flu or COVID-19 (or both).
Leverage Technology to Navigate New Patient Care Demands
Electronic Health Records (EHRs) work well with both in-person and telehealth visits. Physicians can easily access patient medical history, add new notes and diagnoses, as well as referrals and lab orders. EHRs also facilitate better patient care outcomes through quick, secure sharing of clinical data with the patients themselves and other clinicians. This will be especially important for managing referrals as more patients return to specialists post-quarantine.
Likewise, physicians should be prepared for ebbs and flows in telehealth usage. While the technology is now a cornerstone of modern healthcare, patients will lean on telehealth services more strongly during the peak seasons for the flu and COVID-19. By investing in telehealth-friendly software, practices will have the tools required to meet sudden shifts in demand.
Healthcare providers are carving out the future landscape of internal medicine. With many more mountains to climb to overcome COVID-19, internal medicine physicians continue to forge onward for better patient care. At RXNT, we’re here for you during this journey and understand how vital the right tools are to the health of your practice. We invite you to explore our full range of solutions and reach out to our team for a free, no-strings-attached virtual demo.