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The Paradoxical Under-employment of Rehab Physicians During the COVID-19 Pandemic

I used to joke that for all the hardships of being a physician, at least we had job security. Little did I know that a viral illness would put some physicians “on the bread line.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the physician workforce in both anticipated and unanticpated ways. While stay-at-home orders decrease temporary demand for cosmetic and elective surgical procedures by dermatologists and orthopedic surgeons, inpatient rehabilitation facilities are also feeling the squeeze, though the number of patients who need their services are growing exponentially (due to post-COVID syndromes).

In states of emergency, hospitals at (or over) capacity have the right to commandeer beds from other units within their system. So for example, if there is a unit devoted to the rehabilitation of stroke or car accident victims, the hospital might re-allocate those beds to COVID-19 patients. There is also financial incentive to do so because Medicare pays 20% higher rates to hospitals for each COVID patient that requires admission.

So what happens when the rehab unit turns into a COVID unit? A few things. First, the patients who need inpatient rehabilitation with close physician monitoring are turfed to nursing homes. Fragile stroke patients, those with high risk for neurological or cardiac decompensation, and inpatients with complex medical problems (such as internal bleeding, kidney failure, or infectious diseases) are sent to a lower level of care without suficient oversight by physicians. These patients often crash, get readmitted to the hospital, or in the worst case, decline too quickly to be saved.

Second, the physicians who take care of rehab patients (rehabilitation physicians, also known as physiatrists) hand over care of the COVID patients (in the former rehab unit) to hospitalists, reducing their own workloads substantially while the hospitalists are overwhelmed and at risk for burn out.

Third, hospitals are struggling to cut costs due to the suspension of their lucrative elective surgical pipelines during COVID surges – and put a moratorium on hiring additional physicians who would normally be assisting with growth and expansion efforts in neuromuscular, brain and spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

Finally, in some cases rehab units are experiencing low censuses not because their beds were commandeered for COVID patients, but because elective surgeries have diminished and patients are afraid of coming to the hospital. Many of those with symptoms of heart attacks, strokes, brain injuries, etc. are staying home and “gutting it out” while reversible or treatable injuries and disabilities become permanent. The devastating toll will be difficult to quantify until normal medical surveillance and care resumes.

Meanwhile, physiatrists with outpatient practices and pain management clinics are experiencing a dramatic drop in patient throughput, with telemedicine visits largely inaccessible to the poor and disabled populations they serve. Those outpatient physicians seek to augment their income with part-time inpatient work, and unprecidented numbers are seeking employment through locum tenens agencies. Unfortunately, agencies have scant inpatient jobs to offer for the reasons I discussed above, and competition is fierce among agencies and physicians alike. It’s often the case that 7 or more agencies will contact a physician within hours of a new job posting, and that job will be filled before the physician can respond – and at an hourly rate 20-30% lower than pre-COVID days (based on my personal experience).

These are some of the unexpected underemployment consequences of the COVID pandemic for one sub-specialty group: physiatry. I imagine the forces at play may be similar for my peers in oncology, neurology, or preventive medicine, for example.

One thing is for sure: emergency medicine physicians, internists, and critical care specialists are facing a tsunami of patients while others of us are sitting on the bench, wanting to help but not trained to do so, “sheltering in place” as the non-COVID march of disease and disability continues apace.

 

Physicians Are Unhappy, But Do They Have It Worse Than The Rest Of The Country?

Many physicians, and especially primary care physicians, aren’t happy campers. Why should they be? They feel disrespected, overworked, over-managed, and underpaid. They tell me they wouldn’t advise their children to go into medicine. Some feel that physicians are singularly beset upon. “Our government acts toward the medical profession in an abusive fashion. No other industry or profession is humiliated in this way,” writes RyanJo, a frequent commentator to this blog.

I can appreciate why many physicians are upset. They’ve had a decade where the Medicare SGR formula repeatedly has threatened to cut their fees, only to have Congress enact last minute reprieves that replace the cut with a small token increase that has not kept pace with their costs. Last year, Congress actually allowed the cut to go into effect and then retroactively restored it, creating havoc in physicians’ offices during the four weeks when they weren’t being paid. Like Charlie Brown and Lucy’s football, they are told each year by their members of Congress that that “this will be the year when the SGR will finally get repealed, really, for sure, we promise, this time will be different”–only to see it pulled away at the last minute.

In the meantime, they are constantly hounded to be more accountable for the care they deliver, to fill out just another form, to document their encounters, to get Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The ACP Advocate Blog by Bob Doherty*

Patients Are Avoiding Healthcare Because Of Costs

One in five Americans didn’t seek medical care for a recent illness or injury, often because of the cost, according to a survey of adults polled by a healthcare consulting firm, and the number of people who saw a doctor fell as well.

Four out of 10 adults said the cost was the main reason not to seek care, a trend that be driven by unemployment and health insurance costs, said a survey by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. They surveyed more than 4,000 adults. Also, 79 percent of respondents sought medical attention from a doctor or other health care professional in 2010, down from 85 percent in 2009. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

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