Medical practitioners working outside the realm of COVID-19 have been sidelined financially and operationally by the pandemic. Imposed safety measures prevent people from receiving such routine care as dental cleanings, therapeutic massages and standard examinations. The decreased patient numbers have caused considerable financial strain for small medical practices, prompting worries of permanent closures.
“It is definitely one of the biggest questions that we have over our head,” said Dr. Esther Lopez, a dentist and owner of Healthy Tooth Dental, 719 Lake St.
Though dentistry is considered an essential business, dentists are limited to providing emergency and urgent care under Governor J.B. Pritzker’s order. Emergency dental work includes any treatment of a potential life-threatening oral cavity, as well as ongoing bleeding in tissue and severe pain or infection. Urgent dental treatment refers to conditions that could lead to life-threatening emergencies if untreated.
People can contract COVID-19 from particles ejected through the mouth, making dental work dangerous. Dentists have been limited to urgent and emergency procedures in an effort to preserve available personal protection equipment. Lopez made the move to cease normal work operations prior to the issuance of both local and statewide orders to shelter in place.
“Our last official day where we had our entire team treating patients was actually Saturday, March 14. It seems like ages ago,” Lopez said. “It was a really big realization of how our world was going to change and how uncertain things are going to be in the field of dentistry.”
Like many other medical practices, Lopez has moved to a telehealth model, examining
teeth over Facetime, having patients use spoons to widen cheeks and reflect molars.
However, not every insurance provider covers dental telehealth claims.
Like many other businesses, Lopez had to furlough her staff, including the dental hygienists who assist her.
“Our staff has been advised to go ahead and file for unemployment,” said Lopez. “It has been very challenging because we own our own practice. We’re not owned by a corporation. It’s kind of like a mom-and-pop shop.”
Lopez has applied for federal loans, including the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), through the U.S. Small Business Administration. Many businesses are vying for those loans, making the competition stiff. However, Lopez remains hopeful.
COVID-19 has also hurt chiropractic and physical therapy practices.
Fuller Health Group, which provides both services, has seen its revenue decrease at its two locations – one in Chicago and the other in Oak Park, 1010 Lake St.
“Financially, both practices have seen a significant reduction in overall revenue,” said Sam Yousif, Fuller Health Group manager.
The chiropractic and physical therapy fields are quite literally hands-on. Physical therapists often treat patients simultaneously, all in one large room with shared equipment.
“It requires a lot of not necessarily just interaction, but interaction within a collective group,” Yousif said.
According to Yousif, some patients can be treated through telehealth surprisingly well. However, people who had surgery just prior to the spread of COVID-19 in Illinois need traditional therapy.
Fuller Health has hand sanitizer and hand washing stations, as well as thermometers readily available. Therapists wear masks and gloves; they also make home visits when needed. Patients who come into appointments are asked to wear masks as well.
Appointments are scheduled further apart to adequately sanitize equipment and limit the number of people together at one time.
“Certain practices and businesses were predicated on a financial model that said, ‘I gotta serve as many people as possible within a certain space,'” said Yousif.
That financial model does not translate into an environment safe from COVID-19.
“It’s a very stressful time, from a businessowner perspective,” said Dr. Mary Ann Bender. Bender owns her own podiatry practice at 6931 W. North Ave.
Having not made the switch to telehealth, Bender still sees patients in person. But only those with serious and immediate foot problems.
“All the patients I’m seeing now really need to see me,” said Bender. “They’re either in pain or they’ve injured themselves or they have an infection.”
Bender’s current patient volume is about 40 to 50 percent of what the normal volume would be at this time of year. Despite the significant decrease, Bender has had better fortune than other practitioners in her field.
“I’ve heard a lot of podiatrists saying they’re at 20 to 25 percent, so I’m lucky with regard to that,” she said.
Normally, Bender sees four patients per hour. She has since spaced out her appointments, seeing only two an hour, to ensure their safety, as well as her own. However, it has affected her bottom line.
Under normal circumstances, Bender has only one employee: herself. Along with other medical practitioners, Bender rents the space from the owner of the clinic. The owner’s hired staff man the front desk, answer faxes and calls and get test results for the practitioners.
The clinic owner laid off that staff. For about two weeks, there was no one to answer phones or respond to faxes, said Bender. Now Bender pays one of the former staff members to work as her assistant.
“I have to pay my assistant for more time than I usually would and I’m seeing fewer patients,” Bender said. “The next couple of months, I will not pay myself a salary at all.”
Like Lopez, Bender has applied for the PPP loan. However, Bender only knows of two people who have gotten it. Bender has also applied for multiple grants.
“Anything I qualify for, I apply for,” she said.
Outside of podiatry, Bender serves as president of Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce. Many business owners have reached out to her with serious closure concerns.
“Many of these people have not gotten approved for any of the financial assistance that they’ve applied for,” she said.
Bender believes her practice will survive the crisis; her husband has a secure job and she has patients waiting for her to reopen fully.
“I can get by without paying myself for a few months, which is not a good thing, but at least I can get by,” she said. “A lot of businesses at this moment may not make it through.”