Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health care utilization in the Vaccine Safety Datalink: retrospective cohort study Journal Article uri icon
  • BACKGROUND: Understanding the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health care utilization is important to health care organizations and policy makers for strategic planning, as well as to researchers when designing studies that use observational electronic health record data during the pandemic period. OBJECTIVE: This study aimed to evaluate the changes in health care utilization across all care settings among a large, diverse, and insured population in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. METHODS: We conducted a retrospective cohort study within 8 health care organizations participating in the Vaccine Safety Datalink Project using electronic health record data from members of all ages from January 1, 2017, to December 31, 2021. The visit rates per person-year were calculated monthly during the study period for 4 health care settings combined as well as by inpatient, emergency department (ED), outpatient, and telehealth settings, both among all members and members without COVID-19. Difference-in-difference analysis and interrupted time series analysis were performed to assess the changes in visit rates from the prepandemic period (January 2017 to February 2020) to the early pandemic period (April-December 2020) and the later pandemic period (July-December 2021), respectively. An exploratory analysis was also conducted to assess trends through June 2023 at one of the largest sites, Kaiser Permanente Southern California. RESULTS: The study included more than 11 million members from 2017 to 2021. Compared with the prepandemic period, we found reductions in visit rates during the early pandemic period for all in-person care settings. During the later pandemic period, overall use reached 8.36 visits per person-year, exceeding the prepandemic level of 7.49 visits per person-year in 2019 (adjusted percent change 5.1%, 95% CI 0.6%-9.9%); inpatient and ED visits returned to prepandemic levels among all members, although they remained low at 0.095 and 0.241 visits per person-year, indicating a 7.5% and 8% decrease compared to pre-pandemic levels among members without COVID-19, respectively. Telehealth visits, which were approximately 42% of the volume of outpatient visits during the later pandemic period, were increased by 97.5% (95% CI 86.0%-109.7%) from 0.865 visits per person-year in 2019 to 2.35 visits per person-year in the later pandemic period. The trends in Kaiser Permanente Southern California were similar to those of the entire study population. Visit rates from January 2022 to June 2023 were stable and appeared to be a continuation of the use levels observed at the end of 2021. CONCLUSIONS: Telehealth services became a mainstay of the health care system during the late COVID-19 pandemic period. Inpatient and ED visits returned to prepandemic levels, although they remained low among members without evidence of COVID-19. Our findings provide valuable information for strategic resource allocation for postpandemic patient care and for designing observational studies involving the pandemic period.

  • Link to Article
    publication date
  • 2024
  • published in
  • COVID-19
  • Cohort Studies
  • Coronavirus Infections
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Telemedicine
  • Utilization
  • Additional Document Info
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