Dr. Valentine Otuechere reflects on how COVID-19 is affecting his medical practice due to lack of resources.
Dr. Otuechere is a local family doctor with 25 years of experience. He owns Valentine Medical Clinic, which is located in Riverside, CA, and provides affordable medical care to the community.
As one of the few local practices that continues to do in-person consultations, Dr. Otuechere’s practice has faced loss of resources and financial security due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He shares more about the hardships he’s facing as a business owner, physician, and local resident of the community, while the virus continues to spread.
Q: How would you describe the work environment here in your medical practice?
A: The work environment here can be stressful at times because it’s difficult to find PPE gear and disinfectant products for the practice. When my office manager is able to find PPE and disinfectant products, the price for it has tripled and it’s very limited.
Q: What precautions have you taken to keep you and your employees safe?
A: We are staying six feet apart and screening patients at the door. We are checking patients’ temperatures at the door before they can enter and make sure they are wearing a face mask. All my staff is required to wear PPE for their entire eight-hour shifts.
Q: Have you ever dealt with a pandemic like this before?
A: I’m from Nigeria. I have been through several pandemics. Back in my country, I have experienced Ebola, Malaria and Tuberculosis. Based on my experience, I can say that the cases were harder to overcome. As you know, Nigeria is a third world country. Hospitals and medical practices in Nigeria already experience lack of resources, medical equipment and PPE. In the United States, there are programs that hospitals can apply for to get PPE and medical equipment, but back in my country, there aren’t a lot of resources and programs that physicians or hospitals can apply for.
Q: Do you keep in touch with other local medical practices?
A: As far as medical practices, I have some colleagues who work in different specialties like Ophthalmology, Dermatology, Dental and Internal Medicine. They all have their own private practice, so they understand the situation that we are all in within the realm of private practices. For example, we share information like PPE and disinfectant distributors, which helps because when one of my distributors only has a limited number of disinfectant products, I can reach out to my colleagues and they help me get connected with someone else or vice versa.
Q: Have you noticed a decline of family practices within the community since COVID-19 began?
A: Well, not exactly for family practice, but one of my colleagues who owns an Ophthalmology private practice had to let go more than half of her staff due to the high exposure from COVID-19. She could no longer afford to keep her staff on payroll and had to reduce her clinic hours of operation; the clinic is only open two days out of the week. This is a huge loss for the local residents around the area because her practice has been treating local residents for more than 13 years.
Q: How would you describe the community that you treat on a daily basis?
A: The community that I treat are middle to low-income residents within the Inland Empire. My patients are mainly Latino, Black, and Asian residents. My clinic provides services for the uninsured residents in the community. We are also one of the few clinics in the surrounding area that provides immigration physicals and DMV physicals for truck drivers. Although my clinic is not an Urgent Care, local residents can come and see me as a walk-in without an appointment.
Q: How would you describe your initial response when Governor Newsom declared the mandated face covering and social distancing?
A: Well, when Governor Newsom first declared the stay-at-home order back in March, we all received that notification at the same time as everyone else. I had a staff meeting the next day and prepared my staff with the new CDC standard protocols. We now have a system going forward before patients can come in the office. We have to screen the patients and ask them what brought them in to see me and, if it was COVID-19 symptoms or exposure, we had to refer them to the COVID testing facility before they can see me.
Q: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges your practice has faced thus far?
A: The biggest challenge my practice has faced thus far is having patients not tell my staff what exactly made them come and see me. We have faced some situations where patients lie about their symptoms with my staff and when it’s just me and the patient in the examination room, they say exactly what brought them in, which is COVID exposure or symptoms-related. This is a huge risk for myself, staff and other patients who are waiting to be treated by me because we normally refer them to get tested or to go to Emergency Room if they have symptoms. Another issue is the lack of resources, like disinfectant products, medical equipment, and blood pressure cuffs, which are thermometers that was easier to obtain before COVID-19, but now it’s hard to find and more expensive. Majority of my patients are low-income families that don’t have access to technology such as the internet, smart phones and computers with cameras. This makes it impossible to do virtual tele-health visits, which are virtual examinations.
Q: Have you noticed a decline or increase of patients coming to see their family doctor instead of seeking help from the E.R. or Urgent Cares during this pandemic?
A: I have noticed a decline of my patients coming to see me or other doctors that I have referred them to because they are scared of getting exposed to COVID. From a business standpoint, this does affect my clinic financially because we used to see 60 patients a day before COVID and now we only see 25 patients. Also, some of the doctors that I refer my patients to have a long waiting list because they minimized the number of patients they see per day. This makes it difficult for patients to get the care they need because they can be scheduled out three months from now. The Emergency Room and Urgent Care have a more than two hour wait to get treated. Patients would rather go see their family doctor or, sadly, stay home. I always recommend my patients to go seek medical help whether they choose to see me or go to the nearest Emergency Room. What I can say is that when patients have to wait a long time to be seen, it does discourage them to go seek medical help because just as my time is valuable, so is theirs.
Q: Taking into consideration the state that we are in, what is your ultimate goal for your office before the year is over?
A: The ultimate goal before the year is over is to expand tele-health phone visits to include video. Hopefully to be able to go back to seeing all my patients because I have some patients who would rather stay home than to come and see me. I have some patients who have underlying medical conditions, like diabetes, hypertension and cardiac problems, and they are scared of getting exposed to COVID by coming to my office. So my ultimate goal is to be able to see all of my patients.