When COVID-19 first hit, practices were forced to enter crisis mode and make tough decisions to remain open. More than 12,000 job losses occurred in the month of March alone,¹ and on average practices have reported a 55% decrease in revenue.² After facing the devastating financial impacts from the initial outbreak, it’s hard to believe practices are confronting the effects of COVID-19’s second wave.
As physician practices prepare, it will be crucial to utilize lessons learned and industry best practices that not only enable practices to continue in their near-term recovery efforts, but also generate momentum to build greater success in the long term. This article will cover four key initiatives physician practices should implement now to prepare their revenue cycles for a second wave of COVID-19.
Given that many patients are apprehensive about returning to care facilities, practices need to make sure they’re in a stable financial position and appropriately managing overall expenses. Practice leaders should utilize analytics to run projections with cash flows and analyze historical data from 12 months pre-COVID-19, as well as during the peak, to make key decisions around hours of operation and staff allocation.
To stay in a stable financial position, practices need to match capacity with current and anticipated demand. Since payroll accounts for a large portion of a practice’s overall operating expense, staffing decisions should always align with volume. If your practice isn’t seeing many patients and business is expected to stay slow, only essential staff should be working. Another smart strategy is to determine if clinical staff can be shared. If a provider is seeing half of their regular volume, there may be an opportunity to cross train medical assistants in other areas to support the practice.
While only about 15% of physician practices were using telehealth last year for patient care,³ COVID-19 has changed provider and patient mindsets. Telehealth will continue to be a practice’s best option for socially distant care delivery and reimbursement, helping to increase patient volume through virtual appointments and recoup revenue lost due to lack of scheduled in-person visits. To ensure patients know your practice is still offering telehealth services, schedule follow-up appointments with past users and proactively send email or text reminders with scheduling links.
In addition, to receive the most value from your telehealth program, practices need to ensure their telehealth workflows align with internal revenue cycle processes. A survey from the Pennsylvania Medical Society found that while the use of telemedicine increased during the pandemic, 27% of physician participants found telemedicine reimbursement to be difficult or very difficult.⁴
Since telehealth scheduling and collections processes are different from traditional care encounters, it’s important to work with a revenue cycle partner and establish an effective workflow that eliminates any bottlenecks, workarounds or time-consuming manual tasks. Many patients have utilized telehealth services during this pandemic and will return to providers who deliver the most seamless experiences they have come to expect.
Fear of contagion is still a primary concern for patients, and COVID-19 has been a huge catalyst for pushing self-service in healthcare. Patients want to complete administrative processes online or outside of a waiting room to limit potential coronavirus exposure. To remain competitive, practices need to adapt to these new consumer expectations and implement appropriate technology and workflows if not already in place.
A digital patient experience solution that offers online scheduling, pre-registration and virtual check-in gives patients the contactless consumer experience they want and are used to receiving in other industries. In addition to offering better customer service, this technology makes a practice more efficient by lowering administrative costs and providing more opportunity for patient outreach. Patient experience solutions can send on-demand messaging regarding new safety procedures and services, as well as reminders to schedule annual wellness visits, elective procedures delayed due to COVID-19 or follow-up appointments. By reengaging with patients now, practices can drive volume and ensure patients feel comfortable and safe entering facilities.
Cash flow issues were a major concern during the first phase of COVID-19, and many practices were only able to stay open because of government financial assistance. A Rockpointe survey of more than 1,000 physicians from 29 states found that 81% of administrators applied for government assistance for small businesses and 62% received an emergency payment from CMS.⁵ Practices should work with their administrative teams or revenue cycle partners to continue to identify and apply for financial programs that can help ensure financial recovery through future spikes in COVID-19 cases. Stay connected with national societies associated with your practice specialty so you can receive real-time notifications on upcoming funding opportunities and know what data to pull so you can apply as soon as possible.
Physician practices are in a new healthcare landscape — one that will feel the impacts of COVID-19 for quite some time. Make sure your practice isn’t once again caught off guard and can easily adapt to patients’ evolving expectations. Considering the challenges and expense associated with deploying new technology and maintaining effective revenue cycle/practice management operations in-house, a smart approach may be to engage an end-to-end revenue cycle partner.
Telehealth, self-service and virtual registration will no longer be nice-to-have add-ons in the new healthcare landscape, but rather requirements for success. By rebuilding now and adapting to the new normal, practices can establish a new operational foundation that will lead to better financial and patient outcomes for years to come.
Vijay Kotte is the executive vice president of physician services at R1.