The COVID-19 pandemic is driving profound changes to U.S. healthcare delivery systems—changes that are continuing as states selectively reopen services. Physicians and healthcare providers are adjusting to the new normal, while bracing for what further systemic disruption will mean for patients, primary and preventative care, their businesses, and their own mental health.

Likewise, the pharmaceutical industry is recalibrating how best to serve prescribers now and going forward.

InCrowd performed six waves of COVID-19 physician research between January and May 2020. In each wave, InCrowd quantified U.S. physician perceptions about the healthcare system’s readiness for the pandemic and their personal experience with it. Additionally, two reports on high-need U.S. patients provided color and context from the patient’s perspective, along with a nurse report.

Four conclusions emerged from COVID-19 physician findings that impact the pharma industry’s work as a trusted partner to physicians.

1. Doctors Desperately Want Their Voice to be Heard

Given the seismic disruptions of the pandemic, including chronic supply shortages, limited test kit availability, and drops in practice volume and revenues, one would certainly understand if doctors wanted to forego non-direct care tasks such as primary market research. However, that was hardly the case. In mid-March 2020, as the U.S. pandemic was gathering steam, 97% of the 263 frontline treating physician respondents said they wanted to continue receiving market research microsurveys, even in such unprecedented times. Respondents included emergency room and critical care specialists, primary care physicians (PCPs), and pediatricians—groups that arguably face the greatest time-demands and stress from COVID-19.

When asked why they wanted to continue sharing feedback during this demanding time, 52% cited that they want to help and 25% believed the information they have to be impactful during this time. However, many verbatim responses echoed the sentiments shared by one ER specialist in Texas, “I want my voice heard.” 

2. They Are Adjusting to New Point of Care Techniques, And Carefully Gauging Patient Impact

Physicians believe it will be more than six months before life returns to normal—around mid-October. As it does, frontline treating physicians believe many COVID-19 mitigation techniques that are now in place will likely remain. These include telehealth (77%), exposure-limiting practices within facilities (50%), and phone triaging (48%). Some respondents noted the criticality of reimbursement levels remaining adequate for telehealth to continue. Without doubt, the office process at the end of 2020 will look very different from that of the beginning.

A third of physicians believed additional pandemic-driven point-of-care changes would continue, including healthcare professionals (HCPs) wearing PPE around patients (29%), practices using private labs for testing, one-swab testing, and front-of-facility triage. Heightened awareness of simple hygiene practices such as frequent handwashing also was cited as a significant and lasting change.

Ultimately, patients will decide which new practice procedures remain. As of May 2020, 69% of high-need patients had used telehealth services, up significantly from what they predicted their use would be in March, while respondents predict their use of telehealth post-COVID-19 to be about two-thirds of what it is currently. In the short term, the evolving scenario means even more disruption to the physician’s world as they adopt more care modalities. Pharma professionals need fresh awareness of evolving practice procedures to maintain successful dialogue and insights gathering.

3. Physicians Need Greater Sensitivity to the Demands on Their Time

In the new post-pandemic healthcare environment, time will become even more of a villain for the physician—time that already limits physician feedback so vital to the drug development and commercialization process.

Pre-pandemic data show that 42% of physicians across multiple specialties in 2018 saw more than 20 patients a day, some as many as 60 or more. Data on PCPs from 2019 show that PCPs typically see 24-30 patients, with an average visit of only 15 minutes. As physicians transition to telehealth support, the need for contacting patients can be even greater than pre-pandemic, with all parties adjusting to a new method of care delivery.

At the same time, physicians are well aware that many other pressing diseases and health concerns still need to be addressed during this period. InCrowd’s May 2020 data on high-need patients showed one-third of respondents reporting that COVID-19 has impacted their ability to access medications and treatments—and 46% of patients note that their conditions have been exacerbated by COVID-19-related stress. Two-thirds of patients reported that COVID-19 has impacted their ability to treat their disease at some level.

Physicians had a keen awareness of gaps in patient care well before the pandemic. Understanding and meeting these challenges in order for physicians to continue to gather valuable insights requires a unique sensitivity and respect for physicians’ time and focus.

Respondents to InCrowd’s COVID-19 reports emphasized the importance of conducting insights gathering in a nonintrusive way. Ninety-seven percent of physician respondents said they prefer short, online surveys to all other forms of primary market research, while 30% said they prefer surveys for which they can get alerted via text message to complete. With 84% of physician respondents considering the length-of-survey among their top reasons for responding, pharmaceutical partners that respect physicians’ time will achieve greater engagement with physicians for their continued innovation—even in such distracted times.

4. Physicians Are Balancing Duty to Provide Care Against Harsh Realities

They are defending the health of a nation despite high levels of concern for their personal safety and that of loved ones—levels of concern that have remained stubbornly high this spring, with personal safety concerns at 66% in April and safety of loved ones at 78%.

For many respondents, risks to themselves and loved ones topped the list of concerns along with job security. Forty-five percent of frontline treating physicians surveyed in April indicated fearing for the loss of their jobs. Verbatim remarks cite increased responsibilities at work due to resource, funding, and staff shortages, as acuity increased. These results are in line with other findings, with 68% of U.S. physicians reporting that COVID-19 has substantially decreased practice revenues, and one-fifth of PCPs’ practices could close by the end of May as COVID-19 office closures continue to diminish revenues.

At the same time, many physicians are prioritizing self-care. The second most cited change that physicians plan to make in their personal lives post-COVID-19 as of April is spending more time with family and friends. Eight percent also indicated plans to leave their jobs, cut back on hours, or retire. After years of healthcare industry concern over physician burnout—at nearly 80% among PCPs as of mid-2019 —clinician recognition of their own needs today is imperative and heartening.

The devoted work of physicians against the coronavirus is worthy of public praise, respect, and gratefulness. The four conclusions drawn of the COVID-19 physician data here demonstrate how critical it is for the industry to listen closely and work to understand how physicians are and will continue to adapt to a future care delivery environment. The pandemic is affecting physicians with much greater intensity, personal risk, and need to change to meet their daunting demands. To ensure their valuable feedback continues, the industry must align to meet physicians where they are now and tomorrow.

  • Daniel S. Fitzgerald

    Daniel S. Fitzgerald is CEO and President of InCrowd, a SARORAS company, the life sciences industry leader and pioneer for real-time, mobile-first, Micro-research solutions, empowering global 100 life sciences firms with fast, efficient, high-quality primary market insights.

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