Feature

Pandemic poses new challenges for rural doctors


 

Rural primary care doctors are facing a new set of obstacles to practicing in the COVID-19 pandemic. These include struggling with seeing patients virtually and treating patients who have politicized the virus. Additionally, the pandemic has exposed rural practices to greater financial difficulties.

Dr. Jacqueline W. Fincher Courtesy Dr. Jacqueline W. Fincher

Rurally based doctor Jacqueline W. Fincher, MD, takes a break from cycling in Sapelo Island in Georgia.

Before the pandemic some rurally based primary care physicians were already working through big challenges, such as having few local medical colleagues to consult and working in small practices with lean budgets. In fact, data gathered by the National Rural Health Association showed that there are only 40 primary care physicians per 100,000 patients in rural regions, compared with 53 in urban areas – and the number of physicians overall is 13 per 10,000 in rural areas, compared with 31 in cities.

In the prepandemic world, for some doctors, the challenges were balanced by the benefits of practicing in these sparsely populated communities with scenic, low-traffic roads. Some perks of practicing in rural areas touted by doctors included having a fast commute, being able to swim in a lake near the office before work, having a low cost of living, and feeling like they are making a difference in their communities as they treat generations of the families they see around town.

But today, new hurdles to practicing medicine in rural America created by the COVID-19 pandemic have caused the hardships to feel heavier than the joys at times for some physicians interviewed by MDedge.

Many independent rural practices in need of assistance were not able to get much from the federal Provider Relief Funds, said John M. Westfall, MD, who is director of the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, in an interview.

“Rural primary care doctors function independently or in smaller critical access hospitals and community health centers,” said Dr. Westfall, who previously practiced family medicine in a small town in Colorado. “Many of these have much less financial reserves so are at risk of cutbacks and closure.”

Jacqueline W. Fincher, MD, an internist based in a tiny Georgia community along the highway between Atlanta and Augusta, said her small practice works on really thin margins and doesn’t have much cushion. At the beginning of the pandemic, all visits were down, and her practice operated at a loss. To help, Dr. Fincher and her colleagues applied for funding from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) through the CARES Act.

“COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact especially on primary care practices. We live and die by volume. … Our volume in mid-March to mid-May really dropped dramatically,” explained Dr. Fincher, who is also president of the American College of Physicians. “The PPP sustained us for 2 months, enabling us to pay our staff and to remain open and get us up and running on telehealth.”

Starting up telemedicine

Experiencing spotty or no access to broadband Internet is nothing new to rural physicians, but having this problem interfere with their ability to provide care to patients is.

As much of the American health system rapidly embraced telehealth during the pandemic, obtaining access to high-speed Internet has been a major challenge for rural patients, noted Dr. Westfall.

“Some practices were able to quickly adopt some telehealth capacity with phone and video. Changes in payment for telehealth helped. But in some rural communities there was not adequate Internet bandwidth for quality video connections. And some patients did not have the means for high-speed video connections,” Dr. Westfall said.

Indeed, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 63% of rural Americans say they can access the Internet through a broadband connection at home, compared with 75% and 79% in suburban and urban areas, respectively.

Dr. Shelly L. Dunmyer G&P Productions

Dr. Shelly L. Dunmyer stands in the parking lot of her office. Her practice has been conducting telemedicine visits from patients' cars.

In the Appalachian town of Zanesville, Ohio, for example, family physician Shelly L. Dunmyer, MD, and her colleagues discovered that many patients don’t have Internet access at home. Dr. Fincher has to go to the office to conduct telehealth visits because her own Internet access at home is unpredictable. As for patients, it may take 15 minutes for them to work out technical glitches and find good Internet reception, said Dr. Fincher. For internist Y. Ki Shin, MD, who practices in the coastal town of Montesano in Washington state, about 25% of his practice’s telehealth visits must be conducted by phone because of limitations on video, such as lack of high-speed access.

But telephone visits are often insufficient replacements for appointments via video, according to several rural physicians interviewed for this piece.

“Telehealth can be frustrating at times due to connectivity issues which can be difficult at times in the rural areas,” said Dr. Fincher. “In order for telehealth to be reasonably helpful to patients and physicians to care for people with chronic problems, the patients must have things like blood pressure monitors, glucometers, and scales to address problems like hypertension, diabetes myelitis, and congestive heart failure.”

“If you have the audio and video and the data from these devices, you’re good. If you don’t have these data, and/or don’t have the video you just can’t provide good care,” she explained.

Home Primary Care Center in Zanesville, Ohio offers telelmedicine through the office's parking lot. G&P Productions

A health care worker hands an iPad to a patient in her practice's parking lot to faciliate a telehealth appointment.

Dr. Dunmyer and her colleagues at Medical Home Primary Care Center in Zanesville, Ohio, found a way to get around the problem of patients not being able to access Internet to participate in video visits from their homes. This involved having her patients drive into her practice’s parking lot to participate in modified telehealth visits. Staffers gave iPads to patients in their cars, and Dr. Dunmyer conducted visits from her office, about 50 yards away.

“We were even doing Medicare wellness visits: Instead of asking them to get up and move around the room, we would sit at the window and wave at them, ask them to get out, walk around the car. We were able to check mobility and all kinds of things that we’d normally do in the office,” Dr. Dunmyer explained in an interview.

The family physician noted that her practice is now conducting fewer parking lot visits since her office is allowing in-person appointments, but that they’re still an option for her patients.

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