The business of healthcare is broad and complex in the best of times. In the midst of the global pandemic, medical practices and specialty healthcare offices are working to keep patients and staff safe while struggling with the financial constraints imposed by the virus.
We talked with the BOK Financial Medical and Physician Banking team to learn more about their work with physician offices, surgery centers, clinics and other healthcare practices.
First, do no harm
From the first days of the pandemic, medical practices struggled with periodic shortages of personal protective equipment, known as PPE, and other critical supplies.
“Our clients in Arizona faced significant supply shortfalls for PPE off and on throughout the last year,” said Teresa Lanham, Arizona medical and physician banking manager at BOK Financial. “So they were dealing with a supply chain problem on top of the significant expense to obtain supplies necessary to keep their employees safe.”
Exposure to COVID-19—even without transmission—can create shortfalls of another kind: staffing. “When employees have to quarantine for two weeks after a possible infection, it puts a strain on the practice that employs them,” Lanham said. “Our clients are concerned about their people and many are struggling to keep good employees during this very stressful situation.”
All of this has taken a real toll on healthcare workers. A recent Healthcare Finance report revealed that 93% of healthcare workers are stressed, 86% are anxious and 76% are exhausted.
“These organizations are struggling to keep good people,” said Jim Conley, president of Medical and Physician Banking for BOK Financial. “Extended hours and new ways of practicing medicine in the pandemic have added significant strains.”
Managing added expenses
Medical practices faced with decreased revenue flow from periodic forced closures and delayed procedures needed an injection of their own: PPP.
“The infusion of funds from the Paycheck Protection Program was instrumental for many in the industry,” Conley said. “Practices were unsure how long elective procedures would be prohibited. We saw our clients exercise a lot of discipline during this time by limiting their expenses.”
As the second round of the PPP continues, many BOK Financial clients are still in the midst of the forgiveness process for round one.
“Many of our clients have taken this opportunity to evaluate their processes to improve cash flow efficiencies with things like remote deposit and bill pay,” said Rhonda Curtis, healthcare banking relationship manager in Arizona.
Dial a doc
With more Americans staying at home and sheltering in place, more healthcare practices have begun diagnosing and treating patients virtually.
“Early in the pandemic, people were delaying treatments and doctor visits because of the uncertainty,” Curtis said. “Most patients realized they had to adapt to new ways of seeing their medical providers.”
Some practices have been able to move to virtual platforms more easily than others.
“You can’t do diagnostics, digital X-rays or test someone on a treadmill over telehealth,” said Conley. “But it’s been a great option for primary care physicians and works well for post-surgery follow-up appointments. It’s just not quite the magic bullet for the entire industry.”
Certain segments of the healthcare industry have adjusted their operations to incorporate remote patient interactions as part of the new norm.
“Oncology has really embraced telehealth during the pandemic due to the fragile nature of their patient base,” said Lanham. “They’ve been able to balance doing monthly check-ups online and infusions in the office.”
“From a cost standpoint, many of the primary care practices I work with are reviewing options to do more through virtual healthcare,” said Curtis. “Healthcare groups are partnering with businesses to push for telehealth to be included as a benefit offering for corporate employees to entice more users.”
One silver lining of telehealth adoption is more appropriate usage of emergency rooms.
“Facilities are constantly battling the challenge of patients choosing the wrong type of facilities for services,” said Jeff Kachel, healthcare banking relationship manager in Colorado. “Our urgent care and primary care clients have seen an influx of new patients because people are avoiding the ER in hopes of avoiding the virus.
“Our clients are hopeful those habits stick as the pandemic ebbs.”
Kachel adds that while patients are making better decisions about when to use telehealth and the best type of facility to visit when needed, the postponement of elective procedures and surgeries could challenge the industry in the near future.
“We view our role as a partner to our clients,” said Conley. “In 2020, the government provided a safety net that was beneficial to many of our clients and an economic boost.Our job is to provide a platform to get those dollars to our clients that need the support.”