Provider checks patient's heartbeat using stethoscope.

Study: Patient Volumes Returning to Pre-Pandemic Levels

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Key Insights

  • Data from the Commonwealth Fund shows that some — though not all — specialties are rebounding to prepandemic outpatient volumes.
  • However, more than one-third of patients delayed or canceled care during the pandemic.
  • To improve patient volumes, experts advise that organizations combat fears of COVID-19 exposure, reduce transmission, promote vaccination, and improve equitable access to telehealth.

Study: In-Person Patient Volumes Returning to Pre-Pandemic Levels

A recent report by the Commonwealth Fund found that outpatient visits are rebounding. In fact, some physicians — such as adult primary care physicians, (including OB-GYNs) rheumatologists, and oncologists — have “exceeded the prepandemic baseline.” Conversely, pediatrics, cardiology, and behavioral health have remained “substantially below their baseline.”

The researchers from Harvard and Phreesia, a healthcare technology company specializing in patient intake processes, found that outpatient volumes remained steady despite an uptick in COVID-19 in November and December. “[T]his COVID-19 surge affected nearly all states, exacerbating several challenges already facing care providers: treating patients exposed to the virus or infected by it; managing patients with non-COVID-19-related illnesses; keeping providers and staff healthy; and ensuring the financial viability of their practices,” according to the report.

Visits during this period were “unchanged from the baseline week of March 1.” However, as winter months historically see an increase in patient volumes, researchers concluded that weekly visits were down five to six percent.

Many Patients Still Postponed or Cancelled Care During Pandemic

Despite the promising data, additional research reveals that more than one-third of adults postponed care during the pandemic. Researchers from the Urban Institute determined that 36 percent of “nonelderly adults delayed or did not get care because they were worried about exposure to the coronavirus or because a health care provider limited services because of the pandemic.” Nearly one-third of those who skipped care “reported doing so negatively affected their health, ability to work, or ability to perform other daily activities.”
“Industry experts have voiced concerns about the long-term consequences of Americans delaying care, and many health systems have continued to urge patients to return for their yearly exams,” Samantha Liss reported for Healthcare Dive.

Data also showed that patients of color as well as those living below 250 percent of the poverty level were more likely to miss care. The study’s authors advocated for “ensuring equitable access to telehealth services.” Providers might want to utilize telehealth to manage care to fill gaps and care and increase patient engagement. Furthermore, researchers advised healthcare settings reduce “fears about exposure to the coronavirus.” To build trust in the physician-patient relationship, care teams can factor in social determinants of health, respect cultural differences, and offer explicit instructions to improve health literacy.

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