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'I've been near tears. The deal is, the bills don't stop': Private doctors struggle amid pandemic

Dr. Kim Jackson, who employs 25 to 30 people in her practice, said she has had to furlough half of her workers.

ATLANTA — Some of the heroes of the coronavirus pandemic have been medical staff members on the frontlines.

But outside the hospital doors, there are many in the medical community who are now financially struggling because of the impact of the outbreak. Many private physicians’ offices are now at risk of closing their doors as foot traffic slows to almost a halt.

On a busy day, 100 patients might walk through the halls at Jacksons Point of Light Family Medicine and Pediatrics. But these days, it is quiet. Dr. Kim Jackson is lucky if she gets 25 patients -- or any.

“Literally, I've been losing sleep. I've been near tears,” Jackson told 11Alive. “The deal is, the bills don't stop.”

Jackson started feeling the impact of COVID-19 on her practice when state officials in Georgia asked doctors to stop non-urgent medical procedures in order to preserve much-needed medical supplies. 

Since then, local and now statewide shelter-in-place orders are keeping people at home and away from doctor’s offices. And, as the impact of the pandemic hits businesses across the state, patients are losing their jobs along with their health insurance.

RELATED: As Georgia unemployment claims spike 1,100%, Emory expert says we could see 20-25% unemployment

Credit: WXIA

“In some cases, you really need to see the patient,” she explained. “If they need to get a pain injection or get a steroid shot or they have a bad asthma attack and need to get a breathing treatment, I can't do that over the phone. I can't do that over a video."

"And if I can't be available to provide that to a patient then they end up in the urgent care and ER -- which is exactly where we don't want them to be because we already know, with the pandemic, those systems are being overwhelmed," she said. 

In some cases, Jackson said fear is also driving the issue and keeping patients away from doctor’s offices. Patients who need urgent but not emergency medical care are afraid of being exposed to COVID-19.

“So, essentially my practice has been put at a standstill,” Dr. Aisha Baron, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon explained. Baron has not performed any reconstructive surgeries at her private practice in well over two weeks.

“I'm trying to make the best of it but it's really serious when it comes to how I'm able to live and my livelihood,” she said.

Credit: WXIA

When private doctors are impacted, so is their staff. Jackson, who employs 25 to 30 people in her practice said she has had to furlough half of her workers to keep the business afloat. More cuts might be coming.

RELATED: Furloughed or laid off? What's the difference?

“For some of us it's just really working on fumes,” she said. “We are just trying to keep the doors open. We are trying to keep our staff. We are trying to decrease the amount of people who have to apply for unemployment. Because we want to be here, we want to take care of the public."

Some offices have also had to cut work hours. The focus is now on getting patients to understand there are doctors who can still render care using technology, albeit in a limited capacity.

“We literally have people who we're calling and saying, 'hey we're still available, we have telemedicine and we've changed the way we do it. Come see us or come work with us via camera or by the phone,” Jackson said. Adding that “it's the mom and pops of the medical system like myself that are being impacted by this and are really concerned that we are not going to be here to be able to take care of you.”

RELATED: Models show COVID-19 activity reaching peak in Ga. sooner than expected

A physician advocacy organization called Practicing Physicians of America has created a platform called "Health In My Community" to help some of the struggling physicians. The goal is connect physicians who provide care with patients who need care by emphasizing the use of telemedicine.

“You’d think they would do well through this, but the reality is the opposite. Basically, follow-up visits with current patients have been canceled, new patients aren’t coming in because it’s not safe, and a business that relies on the billable activities of one person collapses,” Collin Strachan with Health In My Community wrote in an email to 11Alive. “We’ve launched a GoFundMe to help raise funds to run a campaign for every physician we sponsor so that patients near their office can know they're available to provide safe care.

RELATED: Health in my community GoFundMe

Struggling physicians' offices are also eligible to apply for small business loans as part of the federal stimulus package.

However, Jackson and Baron said they have had issues even applying. They hope issues with the process will be resolved soon.

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