There are numerous ways to quantify how your medical practice has recovered since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including your benchmarks for provider productivity and physician compensation.
But there’s another measure that can speak volumes about how well your organization is filling schedules and how much strain is on your clinical team: Time.
A June 1 MGMA Stat poll asked healthcare leaders, “Are your doctors working more hours on average in 2021 versus 2020?” From 844 applicable responses, the majority (49%) said “yes,” another 26% responded “no,” and 25% noted the hours worked on average remained the “same” compared to last year.
For medical group leaders who responded “yes,” the reasons largely hinged on:
- The reduced schedules during the height of the pandemic in 2020
- Increased demand for care so far in 2021, as patients have been vaccinated and hesitancy around COVID-19 is starting to subside
- Optimizing telehealth has allowed for more patient access, as well as expansion of clinical hours
- Full schedules and fewer physicians to provide care after numerous retirements during the pandemic. Multiple MGMA members reported no problem filling provider schedules and the wait list for patients has increased.
However, nearly half of those polled who answered “same” or “no” shared concerns with filling provider schedules still, especially in pediatrics (where many practice leaders pointed to lower volumes of sick visits and a slow start for yearly exams for sports). As one respondent noted, “parents are still reluctant to bring their kids in unless they are very sick.” Others said that pandemic precautions seem to be the reason: “Sick visits are down and not filling up,” one administrator said. “Masking, distancing and hand hygiene are working a little too well.”
Other practice leaders said they are seeing higher rates of no-shows and cancellations compared to pre-pandemic times, with many of those patients still seeking virtual visits only, rather than coming into an office.
This latest poll gives added context to results of an April 27 MGMA Stat poll that found 44% of healthcare leaders reporting 2021 visit volumes were still below pre-pandemic levels at the time, compared to 33% who said volumes were roughly the same and 23% who reported being above pre-pandemic volumes.
Are patients ready to return?
These results point to many physicians working to meet the demand for high-quality care as more Americans are fully vaccinated — about 41% as this writing, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). A growing number of patients are ready to return to more normal activities: An Axios-Ipsos poll from late May finds a growing percentage of American adults visiting friends or relatives and going out to eat.
Of particular concern for healthcare providers trying to account for the pandemic’s impact on patients’ mental/behavioral health: The Axios-Ipsos poll reported, for the first time since the pandemic started, a net positive response — 16% said their mental health improved in the preceding week, whereas 12% reported it worsened.
While these signs are encouraging for practice leaders, it remains important to understand how different segments of the patient population feel about reengaging with healthcare providers if you’re having difficulty restoring visit volumes and keeping provider schedules optimized. In a recent MGMA Insight article, The Martec Group’s Jim Durkin, founding partner, and Barb Lhota, consultant, detail four distinct consumer segments from a nationwide study of patient sentiment:
- “Apprehensive reengagers,” who expressed the highest level of negative emotions about returning to a hospital or medical office
- “Concerned reengagers,” who were viewed as most uncomfortable with telehealth technology and displeased about losing a personal connection with a trusted physician
- “Remote reengagers,” who remained resistant to returning for in-person visits
- “Confident reengagers,” who had low levels of concern about in-person and remote visits.
Durkin and Lhota recommend creating “more touchpoints to address all segments’ anxieties about healthcare experiences,” such as social media, websites, chatbots and other platforms that can communicate about patients’ options and educate them on “being an active decision-maker in their health.”
Measuring COVID-19 recovery
Despite the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on physician practices in 2020, new research from the 2021 MGMA Provider Compensation and Production report — reflecting data from more than 185,000 providers across more than 6,700 organizations — showed that compensation mostly flattened after months of lower patient volumes, caps on elective procedures and a growing number of practice closures.
As outlined in MGMA’s free data report, Provider Pay and the Pandemic:
- Compensation for primary care physicians (PCPs) saw modest growth in 2020: Total compensation for PCPs increased by 2.6% between 2019 and 2020 compared to the three- and five-year cumulative increases of 5.27% and 10.15%, respectively.
- Advanced practice providers (APPs) also experienced a slight increase in compensation during the same one-year time frame.
- Compensation trends for other physician specialties also sustained despite the significant patient access challenges faced during the pandemic. Compensation changes for most specialties were very modest or essentially flat, and the decreases in compensation for certain specialties were not as large as expected.
- Surgical physicians, for example, whose patient volumes were significantly limited because of regional lockdowns and overwhelmed hospitals, experienced a compensation decrease of 0.89% in 2020. Nonsurgical specialists also reported a decrease of 1.29% despite the significant challenges faced by those specialists last year.
On the lookout for burnout
While restoring volumes is good business, it remains important for healthcare leaders to continue tracking how burnout might be affecting physicians as the demand for care increases and schedules fill back up.
- Many doctors may be taking on more volume as a result of the organization facing staffing issues after a rash of unexpected doctor retirements due to the pandemic last year. A large majority of practices report planning to hire new physician positions this year, possibly in response to that upheaval.
- Leadership or resiliency training might be an avenue to consider, especially for the 55% of practices that don’t currently offer leadership coaching or mentoring to clinicians.
JOIN MGMA STAT
Our ability at MGMA to provide great resources, education and advocacy depends on a strong feedback loop with healthcare leaders. To be part of this effort, sign up for MGMA Stat and make your voice heard in our weekly polls. Sign up by texting “STAT” to 33550 or visit mgma.com/stat. Polls will be sent to your phone via text message.
- Data Report: Provider Pay and the Pandemic — This MGMA data report reveals the major trends throughout a year shaped by a public health emergency and the extent to which productivity and compensation rebounded after catastrophic declines in March and April 2020.
- MGMA DataDive Provider Compensation — Your go-to resource for any physician or APP compensation decisions.