While physician shortages were a key industry issue prior to the pandemic, the situation has been further exacerbated by the pandemic, and is now forecasted to be further on the rise at post-acute facilities as we exit the pandemic.

According to data published by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 54,100 and 139,000 physicians, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care, by 2033. To help address this shortage, many post-acute care organizations are turning to alternative care delivery solutions as one key option to address the gap.

As any owner or operator in a senior living community can attest to, healthcare is changing dramatically. There continues to be an industry shift away from considering virtual care only as an alternative means of care. Today, virtual care is widely becoming viewed as a means to providing real patient care – with physicians providing predictable, responsive and reliable services. 

While telehealth is increasing access to care for vulnerable populations, technology alone does not solve for gaps in access to care. An integrated model that offers healthcare access via a robust virtual solution in tandem with traditional in-person diagnosis and treatment will provide the most comprehensive care solutions.  

According to the Harvard Business Review, physician shortages are most often attributed to an inefficient system that includes different care models, labor practices, sites of care, and workflow challenges. Uneven distribution of providers, incomplete coverage during nights and weekends, inflexible care models, payer aversion, and inefficient use of provider time from electronic documentation also impact available clinical coverage. 

Ganesh Pawar, MD, a hospitalist for Aspirus Medford Hospital, a rural critical access hospital located in Medford, Wisconsin that also supports a skilled nursing facility, needed a solution to address gaps in clinical coverage during nights and weekends. Dr. Pawar was one of two providers delivering care at the hospital during the day and also receiving calls from the nursing home at night. “In rural areas, it’s often a one man show. It’s tiresome because you don’t get any rest,” said Pawar.

While Dr. Pawar was originally hesitant about virtual care, he was pleased after implementing telehealth into their clinical workflow to address gaps in their clinical coverage and treat more patients in place, avoiding unnecessary transfers and reducing patient length of stay. “Virtual care has made a big impact on our coverage and physician quality of life. We now have the support we need to provide care locally,” he said.

Dr. Pawar adds that having access to responsive clinical care support promotes helps reduce burnout rates and makes it easier to attract quality talent to rural areas. 

According to a study in JAMA, nurses experienced increased demands during COVID that were associated with greater burnout and decreased satisfaction. As nurses make up a key element of the patient care team, addressing causes of burnout is critical to preventing gaps in access to care. 

For Todd Lacy, CFO of Masonic Homes Kentucky, integration of virtual care provided his nurses with the support they needed. “Virtual care is a tool that makes nurses more efficient and confident. They now have access to real-time expertise and don’t have to wait 24 hours for a physician to respond,” said Lacy.

Masonic Homes implemented virtual care five years ago as a way to support high acuity patient admissions coming from their community hospital. Lacy says community hospitals are facing increased pressure to get patients out quickly, which has resulted in a new hybrid model of care that includes virtual care delivery. “The acuity level of patients coming from the hospital has increased tenfold over the last ten years. Skilled nursing providers have to make a decision whether to treat subacute or treat all aging-in-place residents. With virtual care, you get the coverage you need to treat both subacute and aging-in-place residents,” said Lacy.

At skilled nursing facilities like Masonic Homes, virtual care has integrated seamlessly with existing provider, nurse and staffing resources to help bridge the gap and guarantee better clinical, and financial outcomes. 

“We signed up for virtual care because it’s the best thing and right thing to do for our residents. We’ve reduced our patient length of stay with better health outcomes and employee retention. We’re also making more money with virtual care,” said Lacy. 

Physician recruiting and staffing is continuing to become more challenging for skilled nursing, assisting living, and long-term care facilities of all sizes. In the face of mounting physician shortages, nurse and provider burn-out and changing patient expectations, alternative forms of healthcare delivery such as telehealth are becoming more important for addressing critical gaps in access to care.

About Author

Robert Crutchfield - CEO of Telehealth Solution - headshotBob Crutchfield is Chief Executive Officer for TeleHealth Solution. In this role, Crutchfield he leads the overall operations and management of the company’s resources as it grows rapidly to meet the demand for telehealth. Crutchfield is a seasoned executive with more than 30 years of leadership experience in healthcare services, IT, and medical devices. Crutchfield is also Executive Chairman of Hotspot Ventures LLC and previously served as Executive Chairman of TeleHealth Solution.