The COVID-19 crisis has hit many industries hard, and independent health practitioners, ranging from your family doctor to your chiropractor, are particularly vulnerable. As NYC has turned into the hardest-hit epicenter, I am seeing independent medical practices quickly become decimated.
The US has over 1 million independent medical, mental health, and wellness providers that include physicians, acupuncturists, chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists, behavioral health professionals and more. Most of them are struggling during this time. Some practitioners can take some of their clients online, but most require in-person, 1:1 consultations. Chiropractors can't make virtual adjustments. Acupuncturists can’t heal virtually. And when this public health crisis is over, the economic conditions will certainly make it difficult for their practices to recover, even as their patients will need them more than ever.
In the short term, practitioners should be ensured relief from the recently passed Federal Stimulus Bill (the CARES act), and rent relief should be included for a certain period of time since they cannot take clients during shelter-in-place orders. Longer term, we should consider additional legislation to specifically address this hard-hit, underappreciated sector of our economy. When we resume life as normal (or whatever the new normal will be), the industry will need support to encourage clients to book appointments -- perhaps in the form of vouchers or a reimbursement to either the patient or practitioner.
Real-life practitioner stories
In speaking with various practitioners, where patient and client visits were booming just a few weeks ago, now there are virtually none. To give you a picture of a few of the stories from those afflicted: there’s Jim and Anna, an acupuncturist couple who began their practice to help their patients focus on holistic health and wellness. They’ve told me how their full patient load three weeks ago has today turned into zero appointments. DJ is a physical therapist who started his own practice after leaving a group practice where “the care was not patient-centric, it increasingly became about the bottom line”. He is currently trying to consult with some patients virtually but is not able to provide the real hands-on care that his patients need. Practitioners have lost virtually all their income in a matter of weeks, with no signs as to when their practices will be revived.
Independent practitioners are a critical part of our healthcare system. They take care of us in a way that hospitals and larger health groups cannot. They fill critical gaps in our healthcare system, often as a place of solace for patients and clients who do not get the same kind of customized attention in a hospital setting. The choice to be independent is one they’ve made for their clients. Independent practitioners can tailor care specifically for each person, making their own decisions about how they believe practices should be run – whereas hospitals may standardize care for a better average experience. But the tradeoff is that independent practitioners may not accept insurance and do not have large practice groups looking out for them. As a result, they are even more financially vulnerable, and they too have families to feed and mortgages to pay.
How the government – and you – can help
While lobbyists help airlines and hotels fight for the most relief possible for their industries, our government should also pay attention to this independent sector of healthcare practitioners who don’t have a lobby group fighting in their corner. The CARES act provides federally guaranteed loans for small businesses, and the loans can be forgiven if certain provisions are met. Independent practitioners must be considered eligible for this loan the same way a small business would. A glimmer of hope comes from the increased unemployment benefits, as it provides unemployment benefits to self-employed, gig economy workers, andindependent contractors. But, this segment of the healthcare industry, which is most actively involved in the maintenance of everyday life and rehabilitation, deserves more specific attention.
Whether or not you’ve ever made an appointment for chiropractic care, therapy, physical therapy, massage, or an independent doctor, you should call your Representatives and your Senators to raise awareness of this issue. In this chaotic time, we must not forget the workers who are facing a significant loss in business just because they don’t have lobbyists going up to bat for them. During normal circumstances, independent practitioners help take care of the rest of us. Now, it's our time to take care of them.
Rachel Puri is Co-founder and COO of Lina, which provides flexible, modern office suites for independent health practitioners across medical, therapy, and wellness specialties.