Concerned about the state of your private practice as a result of declining patient numbers? Here are some tips to help you thrive once again – from ethical advertising, to forums working to enhance industry relations, and the role of professional indemnity throughout. By Vanessa Rogers.

Medical practitioners in private practice have experienced a significant decline in patient numbers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with many patients opting to forego their usual treatments in an attempt to minimise their risks of contracting the virus. This is likely to encourage you to shift your focus onto marketing.

According to their advertising guidelines (found in the Ethical Rules), the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) allows medical professionals to advertise their services, but this must be done within the limits of ethical advertising.

Advertisements must not be unprofessional, untruthful, deceptive or misleading, or cause consumers unwarranted anxiety that they may be suffering from any health condition. A medical practitioner cannot canvas or tout, or allow canvassing or touting to be done for patients on his or her behalf. Be careful not to provide any guarantees, and not to discuss benefits unrelated to your area of professional practice.

Several features of your practice can be revised or reconfigured according to the post-Covid-19 peak. These may involve re-training your reception staff on professional patient service; revising your fees; putting in place a digital appointment-booking facility to ease the way for patients; printing brochures with factual information on common conditions related to your practice area for display in your waiting room; and looking into a free or reduced parking rate for those visiting. Consider placing your doctor’s plaque in a different place or have it redone so that it becomes significantly more visible to passers-by.

The Progressive Health Forum (PHF), a national advocacy network of health experts and activists, said in July 2020 that: “The lockdown and patient fears significantly reduced health-seeking behaviour. In addition, the pre-emptive preparations for the surge in COVID-19, expected much earlier, resulted in specialists cancelling all elective procedures and appointment lists. These factors combined to produce an unprecedented decline in demand, placing thousands of practices at risk of insolvency.” 

In response to this situation, the PHF set about developing a framework to save ailing practices and, at the same time, to protect medical aids from a swell of high-cost claims when specialist services resumed. The framework can be viewed in detail here. In essence, it suggests restructuring individual contracts

between medical schemes and private practices, so that a portion of private healthcare funding can be released ahead of time. This should guarantee stalling practices at least 70% of their 2019 earnings, and any caps agreed to will allow medical aids to keep their costs below historical budgets.

Another popular form of relief for ailing medical practices over the earlier part of 2020 could be sought, in the form of a rebate, from insurers of professional indemnity policies that specialists pay for each month – during a time when their high-risk surgical case loads had been dramatically reduced.

CEO of the South Africa Private Practitioners Forum (SAPPF), Chris Archer,
commented in June 2020: “The financial pressure on private practices is real and, unlike their public sector counterparts who are salaried, private medical practices face significantly reduced income and require funds to honour staff and overhead commitments.”

It is worth ensuring that your insurance provider is able to provide a revised online quotation on your insurance premium that you feel is specifically geared towards yourself as a medical practitioner and your practice – the conditions of which may have changed dramatically over the COVID-19 peak.–57e93715-ab52-4b23-9ff1-ec27b09229df