Florida’s health care reboot has been slow going

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Florida’s medical providers are ramping back up after nearly two months of only offering essential services to keep space and supplies available for treating coronavirus patients.

But while elective procedures are OK again, industry groups are advising hospitals, doctors offices, dentists and other medical providers to proceed cautiously and keep patient and provider safety at the forefront, even as they emphasize that health care facilities are safe.

Health care is a key component of Florida’s economy and quality of life, and the clamor to restore elective procedures has emphasized both. There are concerns that patients have been forgoing care that may not have be essential but is still important, and that medical providers have been shedding jobs as revenues plummet.

Getting the industry back into full swing will take time, though, and the state’s health care system could operate much differently for the foreseeable future.

The Florida Medical Association put out a 10-page guide to help doctor’s offices navigate the new reality of providing medical care in a world where the coronavirus is still spreading, and any patient could be a potential carrier. It advises to go slowly, with a phased approach and continue using telehealth whenever possible.

Proper personal protective equipment is important, both for health providers and patients. The FMA recommends that all patients wear masks.

The group’s tip sheet provides other guidelines, such as spacing appointments so patients aren’t waiting together, limiting who can accompany patients to the office and pre-screening each patient for coronavirus symptoms before they come in. The American Dental Association has issued similar guidelines.

“The precautions being taken now as far as spacing patients physically, spacing appointments in time, wearing masks, are good safety measures, especially in areas where there are a lot of cases,” said FMA President Dr. Ronald Giffler. “Eventually some of that will return back to normal.”

Hospitals taking precautions

Florida hospitals are taking similar precautions.

“A lot of this is creating a brand new way of life — because that’s really where we are at this point — on how you operate these facilities,” said Florida Hospital Association Interim President Crystal Stickle.

The FMA and FHA pushed to end the ban on elective procedures. Patients with serious medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease haven’t been getting needed care, Giffler said.

“Many patients that have serious chronic diseases that require visits to the doctor have not been going to the doctor… and this has really not been good,” Giffler said, adding: “People without symptoms that aren’t absolutely crushing are just toughing it out at home when they could really benefit from medical care.”

The economic impact of the ban on elective procedures also was significant.

Florida has more than 300 hospitals, more than 80,000 doctors and more than 14,000 dentists, according to state data. These medical providers and their employees, from nurses to dental hygienists and receptionists, were hit hard by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order.

Some doctor’s offices and dentists closed completely, while others operated in limited capacity along with hospitals. Layoffs and furloughs followed.

“This is a very serious effect, not just on doctors and patients but on the whole state economy, when so many people are out of work,” Giffler said.

The push to allow health care facilities to operate at full capacity intensified after it became clear that there was no immediate threat of the coronavirus overwhelming the health care system. Concerns about a lack of personal protective equipment also have eased.

“What we are finding is some of the larger supply chain disruptions, some of the supply chain issues we had early on… have, by and large, gotten a lot better,” Stickle said.

About a third of the state’s hospital beds currently are empty statewide, and there also are plenty of intensive care unit beds available right now.

Still slow but growing

DeSantis lifted the elective procedure ban on May 4.

But many doctors’ offices are still operating well below capacity.

“It’s a little slower getting started than you would think,” Giffler said.

That’s partly because it takes time to get the staff and supplies in place, but many patients also are still reluctant to visit health care providers out of coronavirus concerns. Giffler expects that to continue for weeks.

His message to patients: “Don’t be afraid to get the care you’ve been getting; if you have a chronic condition and you have been under a physician’s care don’t skip your appointment.”

“We have to get the message out,” he added. “It’s important because people’s health is at stake.”

Hospitals also continue to see lower patient volumes and have been working to convince Floridians that it is safe to get medical treatment.

“We are really trying to spread the message that hospitals of thoughtfully taken precautions, hospitals have prepared,” Stickle said, adding: “No patient should feel concerned about going to the hospital if they feel they need to seek out emergency medical attention.”

This story originally published to herladtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.

Florida Medical Association reopening guidelines

The Florida Medical Association published a 10-page primer for physicians on reopening medical practices. Among the recommendations:

* Phase in the reopening “so that the practice may quickly identify and address any practical challenges presented.”

* Screen patients for coronavirus symptoms before they visit.

* Adopt new safety measures such as mandating patients wear masks, spacing out appointments to limit patient contact and limiting who can attend appointments with patients.

* Protect health care workers by ensuring there is adequate personal protective equipment, screening employees for illness and minimizing contact between employees.