Employment in the health care field has dropped nearly 6 percent nationally since February amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with some sectors in Massachusetts experiencing more dramatic declines, according to data presented Wednesday.
Health Policy Commission research director David Auerbach described the data, discussed during a commission meeting, as "pretty striking and totally unprecedented."
The national employment figures show some rebounding in May, with initial business reopening efforts underway in some states, Auerbach said. The declines were steeper for physician offices and outpatient care than for hospitals and nursing homes, he said.
In Massachusetts, Auerbach said, there was almost no net change in hospital employment from February to April. Physician office employment fell by about 30 percent, along with reductions of 22 percent at outpatient care centers and 12 percent for nursing home and home health employment.
Business closures, social distancing and other measures aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 led to surging unemployment rates both in Massachusetts and nationally, and job losses were felt across industries, including health care, a cornerstone sector over the years here.
Massachusetts hospitals were ordered in March to cancel non-essential elective procedures, one of a series of steps intended to preserve the health care system's capacity to treat COVID-19 patients and still handle other emergencies while cases of the respiratory disease surged.
Non-urgent procedures and services, including office visits, dental visits and vision care, were cleared to resume this week as part of the state's gradual economic reopening strategy, while elective cosmetic procedures and in-person day programs remain prohibited.
"Since the onset of the pandemic, patients have had reduced access to the doctors who care for them," Dr. David Rosman, the president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a statement. "As a result, primary care practices and other physician practices have been hit hard financially, principally because of a precipitous drop in patient volume. This has resulted in job losses and permanent loss of some practices."
Preliminary survey results presented to the commission painted a more detailed picture of the financial challenges facing physician practices. The results are based on responses from more than 400 practices collected from late May through early June.
More than half of primary care practices that responded -- 58 percent -- said they were considering furloughing or laying off employees, and 62 percent said they were considering cutting provider or employee salaries.
On the behavioral health side, 32 percent of practices were thinking about furloughs or layoffs, and 27 percent were considering pay cuts.
Twenty-two percent of the primary care practices were thinking about consolidating with other practices, and 18 percent were weighing a consolidation with a hospital or health care system. Seventeen percent were considering selling the practice, and 23 percent said they were thinking about closing.
"While some primary care physicians may be able to sustain a viable practice in the short term, the long-term viability of these practices is in jeopardy," Rosman said. "We have serious concerns about access and continuity of care for patients whose primary care provider are forced to consider consolidating or selling their practice or retiring."
Rosman called it "imperative" that goverments, payers and others involved in health care "work together to provide support to practices working toward stabilizing their practices to provide necessary patient care."
"In the long term, we need to acknowledge the need for repair of a health care financing system that is leading to financial woes and bankruptcies in the midst of a health care crisis," he said.