April 15, 2020

On and Off the Front Lines: How COVID-19 Is Affecting HCPs

Black doctor with stethoscope and smart phone

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States gallops past half a million, healthcare providers (HCPs) of all types are experiencing the effects the pandemic is having on their practices. Results from a recent survey of more than 300 providers, including those in the fields of dermatology, gastroenterology, nephrology, neurology, rheumatology and primary care note a “shocking climb in the level of concern” about the impact to their practices, with 58% were indicating a high impact on their practice.

Although the degree to which physicians are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic depends on their specialty, treatment setting, and location, it’s important for pharma marketers to understand the dire mindset of these healthcare providers (HCPs) on and off the front lines.

Emergency medicine doctors are seeing their hours, pay and benefits cut. One hospital employment firm, Alteon, is moving some providers from salaried to hourly positions.

Nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists, like one employed by hospital staffing firm TeamHealth, are being asked to volunteer for furloughs that could last as long as 90 days.

Primary care providers, too, are on the front lines – more than one-fifth (21%) reported that the COVID-19 outbreak has had a “severe impact” on their practice; another 30% report the strain as “close to severe.” Others are confused by the constantly shifting recommendations.

And those who aren’t treating virus patients directly are …

  • Shifting quickly to telehealth, if and where they can;
  • Helping calm fears of existing patients and overwhelmed with patient questions they may not even know the answers to
  • Caring for patients who are immunocompromised and at higher risk: diabetics (would see an endocrinologist) or people who have autoimmune diseases (rheumatological conditions are mostly autoimmune in nature) or oncologists with patients undergoing chemotherapy, and pregnant women (OB/GYNs) who carry risk of infection throughout their pregnancy.
  • Worried about their practices, as patient volume has turned off like a spigot and staff must be laid off.

Reassignments, Strained Resources and Resentment
A recent New York Times article reported that in March, “From cream-of-the-crop surgical specialists to nurses, physician assistants and administrative staff, health care workers who have not done a critical care shift in many years are having to retool themselves overnight — and not always voluntarily.”

A New York neurosurgeon assigned to work in an intensive care unit said he was assigned one N-95 mask and told to use it indefinitely. “He said he worried that at some point, intensive care doctors would fall sick or be overwhelmed by patients and that non-I.C.U. doctors would be managing ventilated patients.”

Even retired military medical personnel are being asked to step up and return to service: the Army says it’s particularly interested in those who served in eight roles: critical care officer, anesthesiologist, nurse anesthetist, critical care nurse, nurse practitioner, emergency-room nurse, respiratory specialist and medic. Pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Merck and Eli Lilly are also pitching in, encouraging their on-staff MDs to help in the fight and volunteer at local medical centers.

The Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) recently cautioned that COVID-19 would cause significant pressure on ~29,000 intensive-care-trained physicians in the United States. “Having an adequate supply of beds and equipment is not enough,” SCCM wrote in a blog post, “the intensivist deficit will be strongly felt.”

In response, the SCCM is providing free online training “to healthcare professionals who could benefit from critical care training.”

Further complicating the ever-evolving situation, the federal government ended funding for coronavirus testing sites April 10, even though enough testing is still not available – this, too, may place additional burdens on HCPs.

Healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic face the possibility of having to decide who receives care and who doesn’t, which may lead to legal consequences. In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed legislation that protects HCPs from liability for decisions they make treating COVID-19 patients. And under the CARES Act, the $2 trillion law Congress enacted to provide COVID-19 relief, volunteer healthcare workers are protected from liability. For doctors, nurses and others working in crisis conditions in Missouri, such legal protections for life-and-death decisions don’t currently exist.

There’s also a growing undercurrent of anger and frustration among HCPs. “What really stunned me and disturbed me: Even though we had been warned by experts and were well-positioned to act, nobody paid attention,” said one NYC emergency physician speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In Detroit, MI, one ER physician said, “As an ER community, we’re cobbling all these resources together, and make our own decisions.”

How Pharma Marketers Can Help
As we noted in our recent POV on how COVID-19 is affecting pharma marketing and sales: The outbreak is affecting different HCPs differently, and it’s important to understand the variety of pressures and barriers that exist for each kind of specialty. Supply chains are disrupted; treatment protocols have changed; and levels of risk have increased. Pharma marketers can be allies to HCPs by providing the tools to facilitate self-service channels so HCPs can get the critical information they need. Be proactive with your messaging and help HCPs understand the new best channels to turn to for information.

To learn more about how COVID-19 is affecting our industry, check out Intouch’s growing repository of POVs and blog posts.

Consultant: Saba Siddiqi, Director of Medical Strategy