How Healthcare Technology Can Help Physician Clinics Recover from the COVID-19 Pandemic

While all healthcare providers have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, physician practices may be suffering most of all.

Among employed physicians, which constitute just over one-half of all providers, service volumes measured by relative value units dropped 5% from January-October 2020, compared to the previous year. Consequently, net revenue per physician is down 4.5% from January-October 2019.

A survey conducted in August showed that 2% of primary care practices had closed in the past month, 2% were considering bankruptcy, and 10% were unsure whether they’d be solvent in four weeks.

Because of continuing pandemic fears, patients are putting off routine screenings and primary care visits, although volumes and revenues have been rising in fall 2020. But that’s not the only reason many physician practices face tough times. While reimbursements for telehealth are supposed to be the same as an in office visit, often times it doesn’t equal that same amount, and the telehealth space can be confusing as many vendors have now entered that space.

The result is that physician practices are scrambling to make ends meet and plot a positive and profitable path forward. One way is for physicians to have the opportunity to participate more fully in the care continuum as patients move among acute and post-acute settings so they can easily send and receive referrals and patient information from upstream and downstream providers.

Pandemic deepens underlying issues

Outpatient revenues for hospitals fell almost 6% in 2020, which also certainly impacted physician practices that conduct outpatient tests and procedures in those facilities. During the initial shutdown in March, ambulatory visits dropped by 60%, before rebounding at about 10% less than levels seen before the pandemic. Physician practices already operate on fairly thin margins, with high overhead and reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid that often don’t cover the costs of providing services. Consequently, the pandemic dealt a severe blow to many practices, with reduced volumes and higher supply costs for personal protective equipment.

According to the American Medical Association, 97% of medical practices experienced a negative financial impact either directly or indirectly related to the pandemic. Additionally, less than 50% of primary care physicians indicated they had sufficient cash flows and patient volume to survive the next four weeks.

Pandemic funding through the CARES Act Provider Relief Fund certainly has helped stem the red tide for many practices. At a foundational level, practices, especially smaller practices, are expected to deal with an ever-increasing amount of paperwork related to insurance, prior authorizations, claims, electronic prescribing, patient portals, referrals, and alternative care arrangements as the industry moves away from fee-for-service toward value-based care.

Modern technology can help

Reducing the administrative burden on practices can go a long way toward returning to financial solvency, but the disparate technology required to participate in 21st century care can be difficult for practices to purchase, maintain, and utilize to the necessary degree required.

Consider the physical fax machine, which remains the primary way for many physician practices to communicate to upstream and downstream providers. Nine in 10 healthcare organizations still use standalone fax machines to send and receive patient data, referrals, and other information, including protected health information (PHI). If the fax machine isn’t in a secure location (e.g., on the checkout desk within view of patients), it could lead to a HIPAA violation. Other perils include sending information to the wrong number or failing to clear the memory should a fax machine need off-site repair or get scrapped at the end of its useful life.

Security aside, paper documents have to be collated, scanned, and assigned to the patient record, a labor- and time-consuming process that stretches overburdened staff. Even with the continued push toward interoperability and care coordination, the sheer volume of conflicting technology and data interchange types means significant deficiencies in the ability to exchange data.

Consensus Unite: healthcare’s data sharing solution

A unified communications platform can bridge the gap between disparate technologies, allowing providers to send information in a HIPAA-compliant format that can easily be incorporated into the patient record. Practices benefit from comprehensive interoperability, with streamlined workflows in an easy-to-use platform that keeps providers connected through the continuum of care.

Direct secure messaging is another way that providers can communicate without the need for complete interoperability. Cloud fax and Direct secure messaging can be used among clinical and financial systems to simplify patient referrals, transitions of care directives, appointment scheduling and more.

With this method, physician practices can outsource all fax infrastructure to the cloud and enable staff to send and receive electronic faxes securely by email, through a website, or even with an app. Through an application programming interface (API), users can fax electronically and receive documents in their EHR inbox without having to leave their current workflow.

Physician practice staff can do more with less by employing technologies such as Consensus Unite to reduce the paperwork burden on practices. Consensus is offered by J2 Global with eFax Corporate, the largest enterprise-grade cloud-fax solution that has also earned HITRUST CSF® Certification. Consensus, connected by Kno2, offers an additional level of collaborative data sharing including cloud faxing, direct secure messaging, patient query, HIE connectivity, and an exchange API integration all in one easy-to-use platform.  To learn more, request a demo.