By Luke Ranker
Originally published by Star-Telegram.
North Texas hospitals are readying themselves for a potential surge in novel coronavirus patients expected by June, but private practice physicians and specialists are facing a different challenge — a steep drop in patients and a decline in revenue that may force them to make hard decisions.
Fort Worth area doctors say they’re seeing as little as half as many patients as they did before the coronavirus, but Dr. David Fleeger, president of the Texas Medical Association, said the decline could be as high as 80% for some doctors. Fear of catching the virus has kept patients from visiting their primary care physician, and local and state mandates have shuttered many specialized practices.
Across the country as many as 60,000 family practices will close or reduce business by June, according to a HealthLandscape and American Academy of Family Physicians report. That would leave roughly 800,000 of their employees without work or on reduced hours and create doctor shortages in at least 750 counties. Tarrant County wouldn’t face a shortage, according to the report, but Parker and Johnson counties would.
That’s bad news for patients, said Fleeger, as the loss of private practice doctors now jeopardizes care in the long term.
“The question will become access,” he said. “Private practice doctors spread care out over a larger geography.”
While most health care workers may be able to find jobs with large hospital networks, that care is centered in major metros, typically at hospital hubs. Rural and suburban patients may find it hard to get to the doctor. About 10% of Texas doctors work for a hospital while 34% are self-employed, according to a recent Texas Medical Association survey.
While the Texas Medical Association didn’t have hard numbers, Fleeger said he’s heard from dozens of practices that have furloughed or laid off staff, including nurses and medical assistants. He suspected there were “thousands” of unemployed health care workers in Texas.
“It’s safe to say most practices in Texas are in the red right now,” Fleeger said. “There are practices whose viability is definitely in question if this continues.”
FORT WORTH PHYSICIANS
Independent doctors in the Fort Worth area, like restaurant owners, are trying to pluck along without reducing staff.
Dr. Greg Phillips, who has an office in Fort Worth’s medical district and sees patients at two hospitals, would typically have around 25 patients a day in person before coronavirus. Now he sees less than 20, with many patient contacts done via a phone call or video chat.
With the drop in patients, Phillips has seen a decline in revenue, placing the possibility of furloughs or layoffs in the back of his mind. His office has six full-time employees between the office and medical staff.