If you have needed to see your doctor for a non-emergency reason over the last 10 to 12 weeks, it’s a safe bet that you either tried telemedicine or were asked to consider it. Telemedicine has taken the place of office visits while the country has remained shut down. Depending on your perspective, this could be a good or bad thing.
The question some are asking is what primary care will look like once all the dust settles. Considering that the healthcare industry has now been forced to embrace telemedicine with full vigor, there is a very real possibility that telemedicine will alter primary care forever. In fact, it could give rise to a whole new private practice model that no one saw coming.
The Disappearing Private Practice
It used to be that the majority of primary care offered in the U.S. was provided by independent doctors who owned their practices. That trend began to fade in the 1980s when hospital groups started buying up practices and consolidating them. The trend really accelerated about 15 years ago.
According to Colliers-Sacramento, fewer than half of all physicians who provided at least 20 hours of care weekly did so via privately owned practices. The total number was down six percentage points in 2016 as compared to four years earlier. Some 33% of doctors were private practice owners in 2016; that was down from 48.5% in 2012.
It is believed that the business side of running a private practice has become difficult enough to encourage doctors to steer clear of it. It is just easier to be an employee rather than a business owner. This understanding leads us to the idea that telemedicine could change things.
The Future of Primary Care
BenefitMall, a Dallas company that provides broker services and benefits administration services to businesses nationwide, wrote in a recent blog post their belief that telemedicine is the future of healthcare delivery. In that post, they discussed four players who all need to do their part to make telemedicine the norm.
Among those players are the clinicians themselves. We are talking doctors, nurse practitioners (NPs), and physician assistants (PAs). In most states, NPs and PAs are looking for any opportunity to open their own practices. Doctors, not so much. But all three might be enticed to go the private practice route if they could do most of their work via telemedicine.
An Easier Business to Run
Telemedicine is attractive because it makes for an easier business to run. Imagine being a clinician who sees primary care patients mostly through a telemedicine model. When in-person visits are necessary, the doctor makes a house call.
This sort of arrangement eliminates the need to maintain office space. It eliminates the need to maintain a sizable staff. A telemedicine-based practice could be operated with a bare-bones staff and none of the headaches that come with maintaining an office.
Likewise, telemedicine allows doctors, NPs, and PAs to see more patients in a single day without necessarily sacrificing quality time with those patients. More patients equal higher revenues as well. Yet the icing on the cake is once again having the freedom that being a private practice owner affords.
There are no guarantees that the medical profession’s sudden and forced acceptance of telemedicine will lead to any systemic changes relating to private practice ownership. But there is a good chance that telemedicine could lure some primary care providers back into private practice, using a new technology-based model that eliminates the traditional office setting in favor of online visits and house calls.