Most rheumatologists say COVID-19 pandemic exposed mental health as ‘key unmet need’ – Healio

November 03, 2021

3 min read

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In a recent survey of rheumatologists, 83% reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed mental health support as a “key unmet need” among their patients, according to a report published by Cardinal Health.

The report, entitled “Rheumatology Insights,” also states that 61% of rheumatologists said reimbursement has declined in the past year despite increasing responsibilities and duties, although a small portion of respondents have counterbalanced this decrease with new sources of revenue, according to a company press release.

More than 80% of surveyed rheumatologists reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed mental health support as a “key unmet need” among their patients, according to data derived from Cardinal Health Rheumatology Insights: October 2021.

“Rheumatologists, particularly those in independent, community-based practices, are under increased pressure today with the COVID-19 pandemic superimposed on the traditional stressors of medical practice,” Gordon Lam, MD, FACR, medical director of clinical research at Arthritis and Osteoporosis Consultants of the Carolinas, told Healio Rheumatology.

“By gaining a deeper understanding of how they are managing issues such as declining reimbursement and treatment challenges associated with COVID-19, we can glean insights that will ultimately lead to more efficient practice models, decreased physician burnout, and better care for rheumatology patients,” he added. “With the projected workforce shortage in rheumatology, these factors may play a significant role in the future of our specialty.”

Gordon Lam

Cardinal Health, an Ohio-based pharmaceutical distributor that manufactures medical and laboratory products, conducted the survey with input from Lam and Amy Valley, PharmD, vice president of clinical strategy and technology solutions at Cardinal Health. A total of 85 rheumatologists from a mix of community- and hospital-based practices participated in the internet survey from July to September.

Among the findings, 59% of respondents said recent changes in reimbursement on self-administered products would have a “significant negative” or “somewhat negative” impact on their practices, and 38% do not have a plan to address the shortfall. Value-based care and changing reimbursement regulations were cited as the top challenges facing rheumatologists by 28% of participants, followed closely by increasing administrative duties, cited by 24%, and the lack of providers to support patient needs, which was cited by 18%.

“The demand for rheumatology care is growing steeply as the population ages, while at the same time, the pressures facing rheumatology practices have increased, particularly over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Heidi Hunter, president of Cardinal Health Specialty Solutions, said in a company press release. “Understanding how rheumatologists are managing these changing dynamics will lead to better insights on how to support the needs of rheumatology patients.”

Other findings from the survey include:

  • 93% of respondents said they expect to continue using telemedicine after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily for patients who lack transportation or are immunocompromised;
  • 90% agreed that social and economic challenges triggered by the pandemic, including higher unemployment and social isolation, have had a negative impact on their patients’ health; and
  • 56% said they are not very familiar with the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in health care. Less than a quarter said they believe artificial intelligence will have a significant impact on rheumatology care during the next 3 years.

“The COVID-19 pandemic forced drastic changes in our thought processes and approach to patient care, many seemingly overnight,” Lam said. “Some of these have been beneficial for the practice of medicine in general. For example, the adoption of telemedicine has enhanced access, convenience, patient satisfaction and the financial viability of practices. But the pandemic also emphasized broader issues, many of which have been culminating over time, like the changing economic landscape in medicine and the recognition of patient and provider mental health.

“One conclusion from the research is that many rheumatologists aren’t fully embracing opportunities to improve the health of their practice,” he added. “For example, the survey showed that most rheumatologists are not familiar with AI-based technologies yet, despite their uptake in various other specialties like cardiology and pharmacology.”

According to Lam, “growing data” show that these advances may support better clinical decision-making, decrease medical errors and identify early interventions.

“All of which may lead to better outcomes for our patients,” he said. “Furthermore, they may help to alleviate administrative burdens, which could increase revenue, decrease burnout, and improve longevity of practice. Our data suggest an opportunity for further education in this area.”