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Pandemic Poses New Challenges for Rural Doctors Pandemic Poses New Challenges for Rural Doctors

Editor’s note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

Rural primary care doctors are facing a new set of obstacles to practicing in the COVID-19 pandemic. These include struggling with seeing patients virtually and treating patients who have politicized the virus. Additionally, the pandemic has exposed rural practices to greater financial difficulties.

Before the pandemic, some rurally based primary care physicians were already working through big challenges, such as having few local medical colleagues to consult and working in small practices with lean budgets. In fact, data gathered by the National Rural Health Association showed that there are only 40 primary care physicians per 100,000 patients in rural regions, compared with 53 in urban areas — and the number of physicians overall is 13 per 10,000 in rural areas, compared with 31 in cities.

In the prepandemic world, for some doctors, the challenges were balanced by the benefits of practicing in these sparsely populated communities with scenic, low-traffic roads. Some perks of practicing in rural areas touted by doctors included having a fast commute, being able to swim in a lake near the office before work, having a low cost of living, and feeling like they are making a difference in their communities as they treat generations of the families they see around town.

But today, new hurdles to practicing medicine in rural America created by the COVID-19 pandemic have caused the hardships to feel heavier than the joys at times for some physicians interviewed by MDedge.

Many independent rural practices in need of assistance were not able to get much from the federal Provider Relief Funds, said John M. Westfall, MD, who is director of the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, in an interview.

“Rural primary care doctors function independently or in smaller critical access hospitals and community health centers,” said Westfall, who previously practiced family medicine in a small town in Colorado. “Many of these have much less financial reserves so are at risk of cutbacks and closure.”

Jacqueline W. Fincher, MD, an internist based in a tiny Georgia community along the highway between Atlanta and Augusta, said her small practice works on really thin margins and doesn’t have much cushion. At the beginning of the pandemic, all visits were down, and her practice operated at a loss. To help, Fincher and her colleagues applied for funding from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) through the CARES Act.

Dr Jacqueline Fincher

“COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact especially on primary care practices. We live and die by volume…Our volume in mid-March to mid-May really dropped dramatically,” explained Fincher, who is also president of the American College of Physicians. “The PPP sustained us for 2 months, enabling us to pay our staff and to remain open and get us up and running on telehealth.”

Starting Up Telemedicine

Experiencing spotty or no access to broadband Internet is nothing new to rural physicians, but having this problem interfere with their ability to provide care to patients is.

As much of the American health system rapidly embraced telehealth during the pandemic, obtaining access to high-speed Internet has been a major challenge for rural patients, noted Westfall.

“Some practices were able to quickly adopt some telehealth capacity with phone and video. Changes in payment for telehealth helped. But in some rural communities there was not adequate Internet bandwidth for quality video connections. And some patients did not have the means for high-speed video connections,” Westfall said.

Indeed, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 63% of rural Americans say they can access the Internet through a broadband connection at home, compared with 75% and 79% in suburban and urban areas, respectively.

Dr Shelly Dunmyer

In the Appalachian town of Zanesville, Ohio, for example, family physician Shelly L. Dunmyer, MD, and her colleagues discovered that many patients don’t have Internet access at home. Fincher has to go to the office to conduct telehealth visits because her own Internet access at home is unpredictable. As for patients, it may take 15 minutes for them to work out technical glitches and find good Internet reception, said Fincher. For internist Y. Ki Shin, MD, who practices in the coastal town of Montesano in Washington state, about 25% of his practice’s telehealth visits must be conducted by phone because of limitations on video, such as lack of high-speed access.

But telephone visits are often insufficient replacements for appointments via video, according to several rural physicians interviewed for this piece.

“Telehealth can be frustrating at times due to connectivity issues which can be difficult at times in the rural areas,” said Fincher. “In order for telehealth to be reasonably helpful to patients and physicians to care for people with chronic problems, the patients must have things like blood pressure monitors, glucometers, and scales to address problems like hypertension, diabetes myelitis, and congestive heart failure.”

“If you have the audio and video and the data from these devices, you’re good. If you don’t have these data, and/or don’t have the video you just can’t provide good care,” she explained.

Dunmyer and her colleagues at Medical Home Primary Care Center in Zanesville, Ohio, found a way to get around the problem of patients not being able to access Internet to participate in video visits from their homes. This involved having her patients drive into her practice’s parking lot to participate in modified telehealth visits. Staffers gave iPads to patients in their cars, and Dunmyer conducted visits from her office, about 50 yards away.

“We were even doing Medicare wellness visits: Instead of asking them to get up and move around the room, we would sit at the window and wave at them, ask them to get out, walk around the car. We were able to check mobility and all kinds of things that we’d normally do in the office,” Dunmyer explained in an interview.

The family physician noted that her practice is now conducting fewer parking lot visits since her office is allowing in-person appointments, but that they’re still an option for her patients.

Treating Political Adversaries

Some rural physicians have experienced strained relationships with patients for reasons other than technology — stark differences in opinion over the pandemic itself. Certain patients are following President Trump’s lead and questioning everything from the pandemic death toll to preventive measures recommended by scientists and medical experts, physicians interviewed by MDedge said.

Patients everywhere share these viewpoints, of course, but research and election results confirm that rural areas are more receptive to conservative viewpoints. In 2018, a Pew Research Center survey reported that rural and urban areas are “becoming more polarized politically,” and “rural areas tend to have a higher concentration of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.” For example, 40% of rural respondents reported “very warm” or “somewhat warm” feelings toward Donald Trump, compared with just 19% in urban areas.

Shin has struggled to cope with patients who want to argue about pandemic safety precautions like wearing masks and seem to question whether systemic racism exists.

“We are seeing a lot more people who feel that this pandemic is not real, that it’s a political and not-true infection,” he said in an interview. “We’ve had patients who were angry at us because we made them wear masks, and some were demanding hydroxychloroquine and wanted to have an argument because we’re not going to prescribe it for them.”

Dr Y. Ki Shin

In one situation, which he found especially disturbing, Shin had to leave the exam room because a patient wouldn’t stop challenging him regarding the pandemic. Things have gotten so bad that Shin has even questioned whether he wants to continue his long career in his small town because of local political attitudes such as opposition to mask-wearing and social distancing.

“Mr. Trump’s misinformation on this pandemic made my job much more difficult. As a minority, I feel less safe in my community than ever,” said Shin, who described himself as Asian American.

Despite these new stressors, Shin has experienced some joyful moments while practicing medicine in the pandemic.

He said a recent home visit to a patient who had been hospitalized for over 3 months and nearly died helped him put political disputes with his patients into perspective.

“He was discharged home but is bedbound. He had gangrene on his toes, and I could not fully examine him using video,” Shin recalled. “It was tricky to find the house, but a very large Trump sign was very helpful in locating it. It was a good visit: He was happy to see me, and I was happy to see that he was doing okay at home.”

“I need to remind myself that supporting Mr. Trump does not always mean that my patient supports Mr. Trump’s view on the pandemic and the race issues in our country,” Shin added.

The Washington-based internist said he also tells himself that, even if his patients refuse to follow his strong advice regarding pandemic precautions, it does not mean he has failed as a doctor.

“I need to continue to educate patients about the dangers of COVID infection but cannot be angry if they don’t choose to follow my recommendations,” he noted.

Fincher says her close connection with patients has allowed her to smooth over politically charged claims about the pandemic in the town of Thomson, Georgia, with a population 6,800.

“I have a sense that, even though we may differ in our understanding of some basic facts, they appreciate what I say since we have a long-term relationship built on trust,” she said. This kind of trust, Fincher suggested, may be more common than in urban areas where there’s a larger supply of physicians, and patients don’t see the same doctors for long periods of time.

“It’s more meaningful when it comes from me, rather than doctors who are [new to patients] every year when their employer changes their insurance,” she noted.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.