It is not an exaggeration to say that everything in my gastroenterology practice changed in response to COVID-19.
Due to the overwhelming surge that Massachusetts saw in the early days of the pandemic, the Department of Public Health issued a moratorium on elective procedures in mid-March of 2020, for both hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers. The moratorium included colorectal cancer (CRC) screenings and other procedures that make up a significant portion of the services we provide to our community. Greater Boston Gastroenterology treats patients in and around the area of Framingham, Mass. – not too far outside of Boston. In our practice, we have seven physicians and three nurse practitioners, with one main office and two satellite offices. By national standards, our practice would be considered small, but it is on the larger side of independent GI physician practices in the commonwealth.
Nationally, moratoria on elective procedures led to one of the steepest drop-offs in screenings for cancers, including colorectal cancer. In late summer of 2020, it was. Two-thirds of independent GI practices saw a significant decline in patient volume, and many believe that they may not get it back.
However, I’m an optimist in this situation, and I believe that as life gets more normal, people will get back to screenings. With the recommendation by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force that CRC screening should begin at age 45, I expect that there will be an additional increase in screening soon.
Pivoting and developing a reopening plan
Almost immediately after the Department of Public Health issued the moratorium, Greater Boston Gastroenterology began putting together a reopening plan that would allow us to continue treating some patients and prepare for a surge once restrictions were lifted.
Part of our plan was to stay informed by talking with other practices about what they were doing and to stay abreast of policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels.
We also needed to keep our patients informed to alleviate safety concerns. Just prior to our reopening, we developed videos of the precautions that we were taking in all our facilities to assure our patients that we were doing everything possible to keep them safe. We also put information on our website through every stage of reopening so patients could know what to expect at their visits.
Helping our staff feel safe as they returned to work was also an important focus of our reopening plan. We prepared for our eventual reopening by installing safety measures such as plexiglass barriers and HEPA filter machines for our common areas and exam rooms. We also procured access to rapid turnaround polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing that allowed us to regularly test all patients seeking elective procedures. Additionally, we invested in point-of-care antigen tests for the office, and we regularly test all our patient-facing staff.
We had corralled enough personal protective equipment to keep our office infusion services operating with our nurses and patients feeling safe. The preparation allowed us to resume in-person visits almost immediately after the Department of Public Health allowed us to reopen.
Once we reopened, we concentrated on in-office visits for patients who were under 65 and at lower risk for COVID-19, while focusing our telemedicine efforts on patients who were older and at higher risk. We’re now back to seeing all patients who want to have in-office visits and are actually above par for our visits. The number of procedures we have performed in the last 3 months is similar to the 3 months before the pandemic.
During the pandemic,, and it worked well for patients and providers. The key was to use several telehealth apps, as using only one may not work for everyone. Having several options made it likely that we would be able to do complete visits and connect with patients. When we needed to, we switched to telephone visits.
All the physicians and staff in our practice are telemedicine enthusiasts, and it will remain a significant part of our practices as long as Medicare, the state health plans, and commercial payers remain supportive.