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Running a practice during a pandemic: Q&A with a family practice manager

How does a family medical practice treat patients in a COVID-19 hotspot? A practice manager talks about screenings, safety, and being recognized in the community.

Brockton, Massachusetts is the most densely populated city in Plymouth County, about 95,000 residents within 21 square miles. As the coronavirus spread with increasing speed in Massachusetts in April 2020, Brockton became a COVID-19 hotspot; by April 30, the city’s rate of coronavirus cases was more than three times the state average. Like so many private practices across the U.S., Brockton’s Bethel Family Medicine was caring for a higher-risk community at a time when isolation was most important.

Practice manager Jennifer Shields runs the two-physician family and cosmetics practice, a responsibility she’s had for a decade. In a PatientPop conversation about the reopening of healthcare practices, Jennifer spelled out how Bethel Family keeps patients and staff safe — and how it grew to be the practice it is today. 

Q: Even before the “reopening” process began in your state, Bethel Family Medicine was open.

Jennifer Shields: We felt it was important. We were in a hotspot and our patients had a lot of concern. We answered the phone, saw babies that were due vaccines, and did a lot of telehealth visits.

Q: Are more patients interested in coming into the office now?

Shields: We tried to limit visits at the beginning, but now we’re finding more people do want to come in. We’re still strongly encouraging telehealth.

Q: What are your safety procedures for patients who come to your practice?

Shields: We have patients wait in their car until we’re ready to see them, and then we call them up to the door. We screen them outside — we have a nice area that’s covered from the elements. We take their temperature, and this is after we’ve already screened them over the phone to ensure they don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19.

Q: When does the phone screening occur?

Shields: We were doing it the day before the appointment, but now that we’re bringing in more people, it’s the day of the appointment. We call everyone to make sure they don’t have any new symptoms.

Q: What’s next after they walk in the door?

Shields: We walk them in and put them right in an exam room. In an exam room, we’ve removed extra furniture and we’re not using paper on the tables. We’re just wiping them down each time. We’re keeping everything as clean as possible and limiting contact. Because we have only one patient at a time, the medical assistant can take the history from six feet away, in the hall. If she needs to do anything such as an EKG, she wears her facemask and PPE.

Q: If you have another patient ready to come in, how does that transition work?

Shields: We have patients exit through a back door so they’re not walking through the office. They’re going through what was our little employee kitchen, and out a back door. When we do bring another patient into the office, we make sure patient 1 is in an exam room and it’s closed. We bring patient 2 to another side of the hall, far away, with no cross contact. We want to keep patients and staff safe.

Q: The patient feedback your practice receives seems to reflect your position in the community, and what local patients think of you.

Shields: We were named Best of the Best in medicine in our local reader’s choice for 2019. I really think that’s because our online presence just increased so much with all these positive reviews and new patients.

Our reviews have really been a game-changer for us. Before PatientPop, we did not have a good online presence. Since PatientPop, we’ve gotten a lot of new patients who’ve said “I looked you up on the web and you have such great reviews.” 

Q: The practice has been serving Brockton for a while though, even before that.

Shields: We’ve been here for 30 years but, for some reason, some people just didn’t know about us. We’re off the road, so you can’t see us from the main street. In an area like Brockton, you always hear there’s a shortage of primary care physicians and we were available. We had openings, but we just didn’t have exposure.

This seems silly to talk about during the pandemic, but we also have a small but loyal following for our cosmetics services. When people search for “Botox near me,” we now come up number one for that. We do have a lot of underfunded patients and a lot of Medicaid patients, so that’s helped make us profitable. It’s made a difference.

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