The number of COVID-19 cases in the USA surged from zero to 1.7 million between February and May 2020.1 With predicted hospitalization rates as high as 20%,2, 3 many hospitals ramped up staffing by deploying physicians to the front lines.4 However, little is known about the supply of physicians potentially available to manage hospitalized patients with COVID-19. Over the past 20 years, US healthcare delivery shifted from predominantly facility-based to ambulatory clinic-based services, with some physicians no longer treating hospitalized patients. As hospitals face the COVID-19 pandemic, an assessment of demographics and practice characteristics of physicians likely to be deployed could inform resource allocation. For example, given elevated risk of severe disease among older adults,2 hospitals may not want to deploy older physicians to provide direct patient care. Our objectives were to (1) describe the characteristics of physicians with recent experience managing hospitalized patients, and (2) measure regional prevalence of these physicians across hospital service areas (HSAs)5.
We used the 2017 Provider Utilization and Payment Data, containing physician billings for Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries, linked to the Medicare Physician Compare files, containing physician gender and year of medical school graduation.
First, we identified all 579,056 physicians who billed for > 10 evaluation and management visits. Because Medicare billing codes for hospital visits are the same for primary attending and consultants, we excluded specialties least likely to serve as the primary team for a medicine patient (dermatology, nuclear medicine, ophthalmology, psychiatry, pathology, and radiology) (16.8%), and emergency medicine physicians (7.4%) who are more likely to be deployed in the emergency department. We then used hospital visit (99217-99226, 99231-99236, 99238, 99239), critical care (99291, 99292), and ventilator management codes (94002-94005, 94660-94662) to identify physicians who treated hospitalized (or critically ill) patients. Lastly, we measured the prevalence of physicians per 100,000 residents in each HSA.
Variables were compared using the χ2 test. Two-sided p values < 0.05 were considered significant. Analyses were conducted using STATA 16.0 (College Station, TX). The University of Pennsylvania Institutional Review Board waived review of this study.
Of the 438,895 physicians in our sample, 44.8% provided hospital and 7.2% critical care visits. The majority were male (75.0% of physicians with hospital visits and 77.2% with critical care visits) (Table 1). Ten percent (10.2%) of physicians with hospital and 6.6% of physicians with critical care visits graduated 41 + years ago. Many performed 50 or fewer visits (17.3% for hospital visits and 43.2% for critical care visits).
Across the 3360 HSAs, the median number of physicians who treated hospitalized patients was 35.8 per 100,000 residents (inter-quartile range [IQR] 18.9 to 58.3). This population-based prevalence varied 7-fold between the 25% of HSAs with the highest and lowest prevalence. The median number of physicians who provided critical care was 3.4 per 100,000 residents (IQR 0 to 8.8). Forty percent (40.6%) of HSAs had no physicians who billed for > 10 critical care visits (Fig. 1).
More than half of all physicians who billed Medicare in 2017 provided fewer than 11 hospital visits. Applying additional criteria such as critical care experience, risk factors for severe COVID-19 (age > 65 based on years of experience), and minimum visit volume further reduced the estimates of physicians with recent experience potentially available to treat hospitalized patients.
This study has limitations. First, we did not assess care not covered by fee-for-service Medicare. Although very few physicians opt out of Medicare,6 some may accept non-traditional Medicare products (such as Medicare Advantage) in lieu of traditional Medicare. While Medicare Advantage plans generally restrict participants’ choice of physicians using narrower networks of participating providers compared to traditional Medicare, it is possible that our approach may slightly undercount the number of available physicians. Second, we did not account for willingness of physicians to change their practice during a pandemic. Third, we did not count trainees who provide a crucial component of hospital care.
Our findings anticipate a shortage of physicians with recent experience managing hospitalized patients with critical care needs during a pandemic, particularly in some areas of the country. Planning efforts should include strategies to mitigate this shortage, including the use of telemedicine, retraining modules for physicians without recent acute hospital care experience, and ensuring that the limited healthcare workforce is protected from COVID-19 with adequate personal protective equipment.
Dr. Ryskina had full access to all the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis. Dr. Ryskina conducted analyses for this study.
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The authors gratefully acknowledge Hannah Wang in the Wharton Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology for her assistance with this research.
Dr. Ryskina’s work on this study was supported in part by the NIA Career Development Award (K08AG052572). Dr. Werner was supported in part by K24-AG047908 from the NIA.
The NIH had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that they do not have a conflict of interest.
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Ryskina, K.L., Bhatla, A. & Werner, R.M. US Physicians with Recent Experience Managing Hospitalized Older Adults: an Observational Study. J GEN INTERN MED 35, 3747–3749 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-020-06240-z