The New Normal: Learning From the Pandemic and Preparing for the Future
Jason Flahive, CPA
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 non-urgent 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 have 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).
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, have learned tough lessons in the state of the global supply chain and how to obtain PPE. Be sure to document the steps you have taken to get the supplies you need and to continue improving your procurement processes.
Flexibility — and creativity
Getting through this pandemic will take incredible courage, flexibility and a certain amount of creativity to continue treating patients. It will also require expanding the role of health care providers to consider many non-clinical 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.
Preventing Physician Burnout
Kevin Omahen, CPA
What exactly is physician burnout? It is the feeling a medical professional gets when the everyday grind that is required in the profession becomes too much and the exhaustion felt overcomes any sense of personal accomplishment. Simply put, it is when you cannot take it anymore. A 2018 Survey of America’s Physicians: Practice Patterns and Perspectives, conducted on behalf of The Physicians Foundation by health care consultancy Merritt Hawkins, found that 78% of physicians surveyed suffered from burnout. So, if you are feeling burnout, you are not alone.
Ways to prevent burnout
There are hundreds of ways to deal with burnout. However, burnout prevention and management are achieved primarily by the following:
- Life balance;
- Improving time management efficiency; and
This is fairly broad and differs significantly from person to person. However, failure to achieve life balance usually is a function of one’s inability to set boundaries between work and life. You need to be able to shut work off to be able to have a work-life balance. Find a ritual that makes you happy and keeps you sane. Walk the dog every night at a certain time, go golfing once a week or have a set time to read a bedtime story to your kids. There are hundreds of strategies and they will vary from person to person. The key is to turn off work and find something that makes you satisfied.
Keeping up with everyday life, outside of work, is a challenge. It is common to start your week off with hundreds of tasks that were not taken care of over the weekend. And even more are added to your list as the day goes by. You might have a calendar set up at work, but what about at home? Once a week, sit down with your family and plan the week ahead. This will prevent you from forgetting about your son’s baseball game or spouse’s dentist appointment.
Work is becoming overwhelming and life is getting more complicated — how can you possibly keep up? Improving on time-management is incredibly important. Prioritizing workloads, making sure your office is running efficiently and not wasting time on tasks that can wait until a later time are some of the best ways to improve time-management.
Allowing administrative staff to take on more tasks, assigning patient work to other physicians and making sure that each member of the team is working to their full potential is the best way to properly delegate in an office. There are obviously significant limitations as they relate to a medical practice when treating patients, however, there are office tasks that can be transferred to other members of the team.
We have provided strategies to prevent burnout that do not impact the bottom line. There are other ways to prevent burnout, but you will need to be open to reducing profits. For many physicians, making a little less but being able to go on vacation, or being able to take a day off to go to the zoo with their family, outweighs the risk of burnout. Other physicians choose to join a health care group instead of working as a sole provider to eliminate the administrative tasks required in running a business, and it also allows for additional resources from the group. Others simply downsize their practice or choose not to expand by taking in new physicians or new patients. At the end of the day, these strategies will impact the money made, however, it can help achieve more work-life balance which could prevent burnout.