Physician Views results: COVID-19 second wave starts to take toll on face-to-face patient interactions

The fourth iteration of our survey tracking trends in physician-patient interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic (fielded to 1014 physicians across 10 countries between October 25 and November 5) shows that an emerging second wave of infections is starting to have a negative impact on face-to-face patient meetings.

Our latest survey shows that 88% of respondents indicated that they had met with at least one patient face-to-face in their office or clinic over the past week, versus 92% in our last survey which was fielded in July. Surveys fielded in May, June and July had shown a steady uptick in face-to-face interactions as the impact of the pandemic subsided during the summer months in the Northern hemisphere.

Similarly, the proportion of physicians who have met face-to-face with at least one patient in a hospital setting over the past seven days has also declined slightly, from 59% in July to 56% in October.

How this trend evolves over the next three to four months remains to be seen, though it is worth noting that while the proportion of physicians who are conducting in-person consultations may have declined, it has not shrunk back to the levels seen in May or June, when many healthcare systems were initially recovering from the first wave of COVID-19 infections. Email and video-based consultations have increased slightly in October versus July, presumably compensating for the slight decline in face-to-face interactions.

With fewer physicians meeting their patients face-to-face, the volume of in-person interactions has also remained flat since July. Respondents reported that their average number of patient interactions in the office or clinic over the past 7 days was 42, the same as in July. Hospitals, considered a riskier environment for COVID-19 infections, continued to see far fewer physician-patient interactions by comparison. Respondents in our October survey said they had on average 14 patient interactions in hospitals over the last 7 days, flat compared to July levels. 

The volume of patient interactions by telephone, however, has gone up from an average of 17 in July to 23 in October. This is on par with June, but not as high as 29 recorded in May. The volume of patient interactions by other telecommunication and online methods - video, email and text - remain low but stable, with no movement from July. 

One potential trend to watch will be whether a sustained second wave of COVID-19 infections and any enforced limitation of face-to-face patient interactions cause new adoption of video consultations to increase significantly, as it did in March and April. Currently there is no sign of this happening, with low rates of new telehealth adoption persisting from June through to August.

Feedback from physicians indicates that there could be a small increase in the number of respondents using video consultations for the first time in the near term.

When asked how likely it is that they will start using video consultations in the coming 3 months, the proportion of physicians who have not previously used video calls for patients consultations and insist they are unlikely to start adopting this approach, is smaller in our October survey (58%) than in July (62%). Conversely, there are now slightly more physicians (28%) indicating that they are open to using video to interact with patients in the next three months, versus July (25%).

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