The lasting effects of COVID-19 on ASCs

Last year, surgery centers experienced many ups and downs during the pandemic.

ASCs nationwide closed or severely limited case volume to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and divert essential resources to hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. Some facilities furloughed or laid off staff, and physicians took no pay in others.

A significant number of nurses and healthcare workers left the profession last year for many reasons, including:

  • Burnout
  • Children in remote learning
  • Finding new jobs after layoffs
  • Deciding on a new career path

The pandemic compounded shortages in the field, and centers have a hard time finding the right talent to grow operations.

"It is really difficult to hire and keep staff," said James Zenman, PhD, CEO of The Cardiac and Vascular Institute in Gainesville, Fla. "The pandemic has left many facilities short of talented help. We have to pull out all of the stops to ensure that we keep our good people and develop a system to ensure that they are rewarded appropriately."

When surgeries resumed, centers looked different. They updated infection control processes, closed waiting rooms and limited contact between staff members. ASCs began stockpiling personal protective equipment, purchased at a premium price, to maintain operations even if supply shortages continued. Centers also began testing staff and patients for COVID-19 regularly.

"I'm watching the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and incorporating permanent changes associated with keeping patients and staff safe," said Akshay Tavkar, senior director of ASCs at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in Houston. "This includes a focus on infection-control practices, enhanced patient and staff screening protocols and tracking pandemic-related guidelines."

Virtual care is also now part of the regular processes for physicians and centers. Semmes Murphey Clinic in Memphis, Tenn., transitioned to more telehealth visits during the pandemic, and CEO John Lewis said the group would keep using the technology.

"Virtual care has continued to increase for our practice, particularly with respect to telehealth visits during COVID-19," he said. "We are also working in partnership with other virtual providers to develop new ways of offering virtual care 24/7 to patients so they can have convenient access from anywhere. The model includes a care team and a care plan to make sure that patients get the right care when and where they need it."

The pandemic has also affected broader industry trends, and ASCs are adapting to a new reality. Surgery centers that were unable to withstand the financial pressures of lower case volume and increased supply expenses last year became prime acquisition targets for larger physician groups and hospitals. The financial ramifications of the pandemic are ongoing for surgery centers, said Andy Poole, CEO of Monticello Community Surgery Center in Virginia's Albemarle County.

More elective surgeries transitioned to ASCs as hospitals were filled with COVID-19 patients, Mr. Poole said. Payers approved more procedures for ASCs after realizing members received safe care at a lower cost than hospitals. In some cases, payers are now driving cases to the ASC instead of the hospital outpatient department.

"The pandemic was a direct accelerator of price transparency and market consolidation and continues to bring uncertainty around the areas of supply chain, pricing and stability of budgeted volumes," Mr. Poole said.



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