Outpatient visits rebound, but some specialties like pediatrics lag behind

Dive Brief:

  • Outpatient visits have rebounded across the country, but they are still substantially lower than before the COVID-19 pandemic gained a foothold in the U.S., according to a report from Harvard University researchers who analyzed data from Phreesia, a healthcare technology company. 
  • Overall, outpatient visits are down 11% as of the week of June 14, compared to the prior-year period. However, the cumulative deficit is much larger. When looking at the period between March 15 through Saturday, visits are down nearly 40% from the same period a year earlier.
  • Yet, over the past week, visits to some specialists have returned to normal, including dermatology and rheumatology. However, pediatric practices are among the hardest hit and have seen the greatest decline in visits when comparing specialties, according to Thursday’s report, the third in a series tracking outpatient volume.

Dive Insight:

Some elements of the report may offer glimmers of hope for outpatient providers, though, that optimism may be dimmed by the surge in positive COVID-19 cases in certain parts of the country as restrictions have been lifted. 

The outbreak is surging in a number of states including Texas, and hospitals in Houston are running out of intensive care beds, according to the Texas Tribune. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is suspending elective surgeries in four counties — which encompass the cities of Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio — to increase capacity. 

“These four counties have experienced significant increases in people being hospitalized due to COVID-19 and today’s action is a precautionary step to help ensure that the hospitals in these counties continue to have ample supply of available beds to treat COVID-19 patients,” Abbott said in a Thursday press release.

Due to the high infection rate in a handful of states, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut said they would require visitors from hot spots to quarantine for 14 days in an attempt to block the virus.

The resurgence of cases threatens to continue to disrupt care. A recent Moody’s report cautioned that a return to normal will be slow and uneven, even with volume improvement in the healthcare industry since the onset of the virus.

In the latest report on outpatient trends and the impact from the pandemic, Harvard researchers analyzed data from more than 50,000 providers that use Phreesia technology. 

Predictably, the decline in outpatient visits was most notable in the states that experienced the early surge of COVID-19 cases, according to the report. And the New England area has been slower to rebound than other parts of the country.

Medicare members are leading the way when it comes to returning to outpatient providers followed by commercial patients, though Medicaid has lagged behind. 

At the start of the pandemic, in-person visits fell and telemedicine visits took off. However, the weekly visits of telehealth have steadily declined since mid-April, according to the report. Still, the greatly expanded access to telehealth may be here to stay, as both Democratic and Republican senators in Congress seem keen on keeping earlier restrictions lifted