- In-person doctor visits plummeted during the start of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, but have rebounded to a rate somewhat below pre-pandemic levels, according to a new analysis issued by The Commonwealth Fund and conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School, Harvard University and the life sciences firm Phreesia.
- According to data compiled through Aug. 1, all physician visits were down 9% from pre-pandemic levels. That's significantly improved compared to data from late March, when visits were down 58%. Although the rebound got major traction beginning in late April, it began plateauing in early June, when all visits were 13% lower than normal. As of early August, in-person visits were down 16% compared to pre-COVID levels. States that are currently coronavirus hot spots are seeing bigger declines than states where the case levels are lower.
- Meanwhile, telemedicine encounters have settled in at rates much higher than pre-pandemic levels. However, they still make up just a fraction of patient-provider encounters for care. As of the start of this month, they comprised 7.8% of all such encounters. That's compared to a peak of 13.8% in the latter part of April. Prior to COVID-19, they were only 0.1% of all visits.
COVID-19 has widely disrupted healthcare delivery in the United States. However, it is becoming clear that as the pandemic has become a part of everyday life for the time being, how patients visit their medical providers has also settled into a pattern.
According to Harvard researchers using data from Phreesia's more than 50,000 provider clients, the plunge in patients seeing their physicians has rebounded from its nearly 60% dive in early spring. However, with all patient-physician encounters still consistently down from pre-COVID levels, the study's authors warn that "the cumulative number of lost visits since mid-March remains substantial and continues to grow."
Meanwhile, COVID-19 hotspots in the South and Southwest are depressing patient-provider encounters for the time being. Encounters were down as of late July by 15% in Arizona, Florida and Texas, compared to 12% in the Northeast and 8% in all other states.
Among medical specialties, only dermatology has seen a rebound beyond pre-COVID levels, with encounters up about 8% overall. But primary care visits are down 2%; surgery encounters, 9%; orthopedics, 18%; and pediatrics are in a 26% decline.
That the encounters between patients, doctors and other providers remains lower than normal has sparked some concerns about practices and other medical enterprises moving forward. HHS just earmarked $1.4 billion for nearly 80 children's hospitals across the United States to try to shore them up financially.
The private sector has also undertaken an initiative to encourage patients to return to their providers. Insurer Humana, along with the Providence and Baylor Scott & White healthcare systems, launched an advertising campaign last month to encourage patients to seek out healthcare needs, even during the historic pandemic.