This year may find many patients searching for a new doctor, but not because they were dissatisfied with the one they had. An increasing number of doctor’s offices shut their doors for good in 2020.
For struggling practices, COVID-19 exacerbated ongoing issues.
Afraid of exposure to the virus, many patients canceled appointments for preventive care or delayed non-urgent treatment. Foregoing care heightened health risks for patients while shrinking revenues for providers.
Just six months into the pandemic, the Physicians Foundation found 72% of physicians had experienced a reduction in income due to COVID-19. Eight percent had permanently closed their practices. One month later, a different study of just primary care providers reported that 7% were unsure they could stay open past December.
Meanwhile, the challenge and expense of COVID-19 safety protocols pushed some older providers into early retirement.
The trend compounds existing physician shortages. Even before the pandemic, the Association of American Medical Colleges predicted a shortfall of up to 139,000 physicians by 2033. An aging physician workforce is also feeding doctor shortage concerns. Two of every five doctors active today will be older than 65 within the next 10 years.
Beyond COVID-19 challenges and an aging workforce, the medical field also has high levels of professional burnout. More than half of providers reported experiencing burnout in 2016, with a majority thinking about cutting hours or retiring early.
As the number of available providers shrinks, patients will pay the price in reduced access to care.
Wait times for appointments may increase, with rural America in particular feeling the loss. Even in “normal” times, fewer primary care providers and specialists practiced outside of cities. Patients who are forced to travel long distances are more likely to put off getting seen, a decision that can yield dangerous results.
There is no single remedy for office closures and looming physician shortages, but creative solutions are sorely needed. Patients’ health will depend on the nation’s ability to innovate, adapt and employ a range of strategies so that access to care doesn’t become another casualty of 2020.