Huge declines in patient visits during the coronavirus pandemic have slashed U.S. primary care doctors’ revenues, a new study finds.

As a result of decreases in office visits and fees for services from March to May during the pandemic, a full-time primary care physician will lose an average of more than $65,000 in revenue in 2020.

Overall, primary care practices nationwide stand to lose nearly $15 billion, according to the study led by a team from Harvard Medical School in Boston.

“For many primary care practices, particularly those serving the most vulnerable populations, these losses could be catastrophic, with many practices being forced to close,” study author Dr. Sanjay Basu, a faculty affiliate at Harvard’s Center for Primary Care, said in a university news release. “This could weaken the U.S. health system dramatically at a time when we need it to be at its strongest.”

Researchers warned that revenue losses would rise if there is a second wave of infection this year or reimbursement rates for telehealth visits return to pre-pandemic levels.

Such losses could lead practices to close and worsen an existing shortage of primary care providers in the United States.

“Our prior work shows that primary care saves lives, and loss of primary care practices will translate to lives lost across the United States,” said study co-author Dr. Russell Phillips, director of the Center for Primary Care.

Co-author Dr. Bruce Landon, a professor of health care policy at the medical school, said the pandemic underscores the fragility of the primary care system in the United States.

“Over half of primary care practices remain small and physician-owned and these independent practices have limited access to capital and other support that could help them weather the pandemic,” he noted.

Researchers said their findings show the need for a plan to support independent primary care doctors and small, independent practices.

The study was published June 25 in the journal Health Affairs.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19.