Doctors still making sacrifices as pandemic spreads

December 16, 2020
The FDA is authorizing vaccines to combat COVID-19. But doctors of optometry are still fighting to recover from conditions that limited the essential eye care they provide and to keep their staffs safe from COVID-19 itself, according to the third and final survey by the AOA Health Policy Institute on the profession and the pandemic.
Doctors still making sacrifices as pandemic spreads

Doctors of optometry are still experiencing the trying effects of the COVID-19 crisis on their practices and consequently, so are their patients.

Data from a third COVID-19 survey conducted by the AOA Health Policy Institute (HPI), with comparisons made against its two earlier surveys, provides a snapshot of those experiences.

For instance, at the height of the pandemic-driven restrictions in April 2020, 92% of doctors of optometry say they saw fewer than 25% of their pre-pandemic patient volume. Once restrictions were lifted, only 58% of doctors of optometry surveyed in September reported patient volumes had rebounded to more than 75% of pre-pandemic patient levels.

Further findings reported by doctors of optometry in the survey: 

  • 31% of optometry practices were not able to maintain the recommended supply of N95 or KN95 masks.
  • A 12% increase in overhead costs since the pandemic began.
  • A more than 300% increase in doctors reporting that they or members of their staffs had been diagnosed or tested positive for COVID-19 (over a three-month period from June to September).
  • 69% of patients expressed concerns about coming into the practice for appointments.
  • 66% of doctors continued to be concerned for the safety of their staffs and themselves.
  • 43% of doctors noticed a health decline in their patients with chronic conditions due to the lack of regular care since the pandemic.

“While the nation rightly enjoys the optimism of the first COVID vaccinations this month, we also are grounded by the seemingly relentless path of destruction the pandemic has caused and will continue to cause for some time to come,” HPI Chair Steven Loomis, O.D., says. “Doctors of optometry have continued to provide essential care to patients throughout the pandemic, often at substantial personal sacrifice.

“While a significant rebound in patient volume has been experienced since the severe restrictions of April 2020, more than one-third of doctors surveyed in September report patient volumes still lag below 75% of pre-pandemic levels,” Dr. Loomis adds. “This clearly is a concern for patients who may well not be seeking the care they need. Doctors of optometry continue to be challenged with obtaining adequate personal protective equipment, rising overhead costs, trained staff shortages and even personal exposure to COVID themselves. Yet, they remain faithful to their mission of providing needed care to Americans.”

For this third release of data, doctors were surveyed between Aug. 24, 2020, and Sept. 25, 2020.

Previous COVID-19 related studies by the HPI assessed how doctors of optometry were continuing to care for patients while meeting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and also the challenges they faced after reopening to routine care. The HPI was the first organization to look at the impact the pandemic was having on the profession and how practices remained open for urgent/emergent care and relieved the burden on emergency departments. Doctors of optometry estimated, on average, that 53% of patients seen for urgent or emergency care would have otherwise sought care at an emergency department or other setting had doctors not been providing this care, down from more than 60% during the first peak of the pandemic.

Among other findings in the survey:

  • 33% of doctors had staff resign or fail to return to work due to the added stress of safely providing patient care during the pandemic.
  • 43% of doctors have noticed a health decline in their patients with chronic conditions due to the lack of regular care since the pandemic.
  • 83% of doctors noticed an increase in patient complaints about vision problems related to extended screen time/computer use.
  • 15% of doctors also noticed patients suffering more eye injuries/chemical burns from cleaning and sanitization products, and 19% of doctors have noticed more patients with eye injuries from failure to wear safety eyewear.

Stay informed with AOA COVID-19 resources

The AOA remains committed to providing the most up-to-date information and resources, as well as continuing its all-out mobilization and 24/7 advocacy on behalf of the profession and patients. Doctors and optometry practices have found the most benefit from the  AOA's re-opening resources, including  the #AskAOA webinar series, and benefited from the AOA's advocacy into Medicare/Medicaid provider relief payments and other CARES Act provisions.

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