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Small medical practices struggle during COVID pandemic

Topic: Small medical practices struggle during COVID pandemic

“Hello, Dr. Hummel’s office. Yes, of course. I understand.”

Dr. Barbara Hummel hung up the office phone with a sigh. Another patient canceling their appointment.

Hummel’s been running her Milwaukee private practice since 1995.It was her dream job, since she decided to go back to school for medicine when she was 36 years old.

At the height of her business, she would see about 16 patients a day. But since the coronavirus pandemic, she’s been lucky to see nine patients come through the door. Some days, as few as two patients have shown up.

She is now the sole employee of her office, working as a doctor, receptionist and office manager.

“This last year has been rough,” the 77-year-old family doctor said. “My practice is technically bankrupt so I’m paying all my expenses out of my personal funds … using retirement savings.”

Hummel is not alone. Smaller physician practices like hers are struggling to stay open during the public health crisis as the coronavirus continues to strain the American health care system. A survey issued by the American Medical Association late last month found the average revenue in medical practices has dropped by 32%.

Revenue reductions were 50% or greater for nearly 1 out of 5 physicians, according to the nationally representative survey of 3,500 physicians, administered from mid-July through August.

“Physician practices continue to be under significant financial stress due to reductions in patient volume and revenue, in addition to higher expenses for supplies that are scarce for some physicians,” said AMA President Dr. Susan R. Bailey.

One-third of surveyed physicians said in-person visits decreased by 50% or more during the pandemic.

Hummel says her revenue is down nearly 60% as the majority of her patients are older and afraid to leave their homes. They know the coronavirus disproportionately impacts people over the age of 70.

Wisconsin reported more than 38,000 new cases in the week ending Sunday – setting another record for the state. Nearly 13,000 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized with more than 1,500 of them in the intensive care units.

Hummel knows at her age she too is at higher risk for severe disease but that doesn’t stop her from going to the office every day and visiting patients. Recently, she made a house call to one of her 100-year-olds to give her a flu shot in the backyard.

“I’m concerned, I take all the precautions I can. I know that if I get COVID I’m probably at risk of being one of the fatalities but if I dwell on that I wouldn’t leave my house and I can’t do that,” she said. “I have an obligation to be here and to help provide care for my patients and I understand that obligation.”

Many offices have turned to telemedicine. But despite an increase in virtual visits since February, the AMA survey found nearly 7 out of 10 physicians said they were still providing fewer overall visits.

Topic Discussed: Small medical practices struggle during COVID pandemic

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