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July 30, 2021, 4:59 a.m. EDT

Why finding a doctor has become so complicated

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Amy Zipkin

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

Barbara Allan, 73, who lives and works in in south Florida, has switched primary care physicians at least four times in the last 15 years, most recently in February. After a conversation with a family member about her health care needs, the owner of the SRA Research Group market research firm decided, “I want someone paying attention, doing what’s best for me and asking questions.”

She also wanted a physician who valued her time. At one practice, Allan said, she was invited to leave after questioning a 90-minute wait for a scheduled appointment. 

COVID-19 brought delayed medical appointments and introductions to telehealth. But now as Americans’ lives may be returning to a new normal and some people may be relocating, many will be looking for new physicians, as Allan is. 

When doctors retire or sell their practices

At the same time, physicians at the intersection of burnout and growing older are closing their practices or retiring (see the Next Avenue article, “ When Your Trusted Professionals Retire ”). The Physicians Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group, in a report issued in August 2020 says COVID-19 prompted the closing of approximately 16,000 medical practices with another 8,000 expected to close within the year.

Some of these doctors are selling their practices to private equity companies. The Journal of the American Medical Association found 355 practices were acquired from 2013 to 2016 and The Private Equity Stakeholder Project said those numbers have increased through the pandemic.

Consequently, patients are confronting an increased emphasis on the business side of medicine, said Dr. Robert Klitzman, a psychiatrist, medical ethicist and professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.

All of this means that finding a good doctor has become more complicated lately. That’s likely to continue. The Association of American Medical Colleges anticipates a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians by 2034.

The question one doctor is often asked

Dr. George M. Abraham, president of the College of American Physicians, said a physician’s departure might weigh more heavily on older adults who tend to rely on their doctors more than younger ones. At 57, Abraham said, he’s frequently asked, “Are you planning to retire anytime soon?”

You might like: I’m 62, unemployed, living off my savings and waiting on Social Security — ‘Can I go fishing for the next 25 years and forget about work?’

And if physician exits a practice due to unforeseen reasons, like contracting COVID-19 or personal challenges, Abraham noted, “patients feel distraught, betrayed and upset.”

But, said Philip Moeller, author of “Get What’s Yours for Health Care,” the most important indicator of health and longevity is a continuing relationship with a primary care physician.

What if your doctor has sold their practice to a private equity firm? In theory, private equity can make the practice of medicine more efficient and drive down patient costs, Klitzman said. However, he noted, “the data suggest the costs go up, patient satisfaction goes down and there may be staff cuts.”

Clues to private equity status include a recent change of practice name or procedures scheduled at a new location.

Starting your search to find a doctor

If you do need, or want to get, a new doctor, try to start the search by talking with your departing physician.

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