Coronavirus outbreak is changing how primary care physicians treat — and interact — with patients

Ray Saputelli uses all of the now-familiar anecdotes when describing the doctor-patient relationships during the outbreak of COVID-19 in New Jersey.

“It changes how they interact with their patients,” he said. “It taxes their time and it affects their psyche and their emotional state. They are meeting with patients who are scared and nervous. And they are caring for these patients often with less-than-adequate personal protection equipment.”

Saputelli, however, wasn’t talking about a scene in an overtaxed and overstressed hospital.

Saputelli, the executive vice president of the Trenton-based New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians, said coronavirus is impacting more than just critical care and emergency room physicians. He said it has completely changed everything there is to do with being a primary care physician, too.

Ray Saputelli of the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians.

The challenges and business pressures that family physicians are facing “are the same ones you have been hearing about throughout all industry,” such as maintaining staffing and social distancing, he said.

“They are modifying their offices so that they limit the number of patients they allow in any one area at any one time. They have divided their staffs into the A and B teams, with each team alternating the days they work.”

A critical challenge is doctors learning to balance the care of all their patients on a priority basis, and not having appointments solely based on the calendar. For example, many have postponed all their wellness appointments to May or June, he said.

Saputelli said doctors are uniquely trained for the psychological rigors that come with high-stress circumstances such as COVID-19.

“Family physicians — whether in small practices, hospitals or residencies — are really focused now on providing the best and proper care for their patients, and whenever possible keeping them out of emergency rooms,” Saputelli said. “They will worry about all the business end of things like proper filing of claims and payments later. As for the daily burden of dealing with this situation, doctors on the whole are trained to be resilient. They are taught how to project confidence upon their patients.”

Saputelli said a few days ago he learned that a doctor who he is associated with through NJAFP tested positive for the virus. It represents the person he is closest to who is facing COVID-19 head-on.

“This really brings it home for me,” he said.

“Practicing medicine within a pandemic crisis is not something you can really practice,” Saputelli said. “You learn by dealing with it firsthand. You make decisions on the fly. If there’s a silver lining in all of this, we’re learning is how to adequately bring the concept of innovative practices such as telehealth to the mainstream.”

When this crisis is over, Saputelli said the emergence of telehealth could be a long-term positive impact.

Telehealth, telecare and telemedicine will soon be a normal part of medical treatment lexicon, Saputelli said.

“We are learning more about how it can work well in more commonplace cases; where a diabetic might need regular consultation, but can’t make the trip to visit a doctor’s office or fit it into their schedule,” he said. “With telehealth, they instead can potentially set up an appointment to be held from their place of employment during their lunch break. We are learning new ways of care.”

Paul Bergeron is a freelance business reporter based in Herndon, Virginia. And, yes, he is related to ROI-NJ Editor Tom Bergeron. They’re brothers. And know this: If you have seen the recent CNN spats, they get along better than the Cuomos.

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