Struggling doctors turn to telemedicine to keep practices afloat

Virtual physician visits have been just what the doctor ordered for struggling family practices in the age of COVID-19.

Dr. Jay Wolfson, an associate vice president at University of South Florida Health, said the medical community was reluctant to regularly use telemedicine, but that changed in 2020.

"We have found very quickly that it works really, really well," Wolfson said. "It's safer. You're less likely to exposed to other people in the waiting room who have an infection. The same thing is true for the physician."

Less exposure is especially important during a pandemic. Even more important is having practicing doctors. Telemedicine became an economic lifeline for struggling doctor's offices.

"For independent practices, small mid-size, it's been a tremendous salvation for those who would otherwise have had to say, 'We can't see patients, we've got to close down,'" Wolfson said.

Dr. Michael Cromer, a family medicine physician in Tampa, recently showed Hillsborough County Commissioners how important telemedicine has become for doctors and patients.

"Telemedicine has seen a greater-than 1,000-fold rise in the use," Cromer said. "In a survey done by the Florida Medical Association, as of early May, there was a 40 to 50% drop in volume coming into physicians’ offices and a greater-than 60% drop in revenue."

Cromer told the commission many of those offices are now back up to 80% of their pre-COVID-19 patient volume because of telemedicine.

Wolfson said the biggest change happened when Medicare and private insurers began covering telehealth appointments.

"The rule has always been, as goes Medicare, so goes the rest of the healthcare system," Wolfson told FOX 13. "It really was a savior for a lot of small practices because they were able to see their patients, provide them with the same kind of clinical services they would otherwise provide and get paid for it."

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, insurance companies generally only covered telemedicine under special circumstances and for patients living in remote areas.