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COVID-19: Eight steps for getting ready to see patients again


 

After COVID-19 hit the Denver area, internist Jean Kutner, MD, and her clinical colleagues drastically reduced the number of patients they saw and kept a minimum number of people in the office. A small team sees patients who still require in-person visits on one side of the clinic; on the other side, another team conducts clinic-based telehealth visits. A rotating schedule allows for social distancing.

The rest of the practice’s physicians are home, conducting more virtual visits.

Dr. Kutner said she is looking forward to reopening her practice completely at some point. She said she realizes that the practice probably won’t be exactly the same as before.

“We have to embrace the fact that the way we practice medicine has fundamentally changed,” said Dr. Kutner, professor of medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora, and incoming president of the Society of General Internal Medicine. She anticipates keeping many of these changes in place for the foreseeable future.

Nearly half of 2,600 primary care physicians who responded to a recent national survey said they were struggling to remain open during the crisis. Most have had to limit wellness/chronic-disease management visits, and nearly half reported that physicians or staff were out sick. Layoffs, furloughs, and reduced hours are commonplace; some practices were forced to shut down entirely.

Social distancing helps reduce the rates of hospitalizations and deaths. Now, many physicians are considering when and how to reopen their offices and ramp up to full capacity. But they’re also aware that it won’t be “business as usual” for quite some time.

For example, remote monitoring capabilities have reduced the need for in-person checks of vital signs, such as respiratory rate oxygenation, blood glucose levels, and heart rate. “We can’t go back,” she said.

Dr. Kutner sees the pandemic as an opportunity to innovate, to think about how primary practices can best utilize their resources, face-to-face time with patients, and when and how to best leverage virtual visits in a way that improves patient health. The goal, of course, is to meet the needs of the patients while keeping everyone safe.

Like many physicians in private practice, Dr. Kutner is concerned about revenue. She hopes the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services makes its temporary waivers permanent.

What you need to consider when planning to reopen your office

Physicians say their post-COVID-19 practices will look very different from their prepandemic practices. Many plan to maintain guidelines, such as those from the AAFP, long after the pandemic has peaked.

If you are starting to think about reopening, here are some major considerations.

1. Develop procedures and practices that will keep your patients and staff safe.

“When we return, the first thing we need to do is limit the number of patients in the waiting room,” said Clinton Coleman, MD, who practices internal medicine and nephrology in Teaneck, N.J. “No one is comfortable in a waiting room any longer,” said Dr. Coleman, chief of internal medicine at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.

Careful planning is required to resume in-person care of patients requiring non-COVID-19 care, as well as all aspects of care, according to the CMS. Adequate staff, testing, supplies, and support services, such as pathology services, are just a few considerations. The CMS recommends that physicians “evaluate the necessity of the care based on clinical needs. Providers should prioritize surgical/procedural care and high-complexity chronic disease management; however, select preventive services may also be highly necessary.”

The American Medical Association recently unveiled a checklist for reopening. One key recommendation was for practices to select a date for reopening the office, ideally preceded by a “soft” or incremental reopening to ensure that new procedures are working. The AMA also recommends opening incrementally, continuing telehealth while also inviting patients back into the office.

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