Importance: Little is known about the association between the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the level and content of primary care delivery in the US.
Objective: To quantify national changes in the volume, type, and content of primary care delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with regard to office-based vs telemedicine encounters.
Design, setting, and participants: Analysis of serial cross-sectional data from the IQVIA National Disease and Therapeutic Index, a 2-stage, stratified nationally representative audit of outpatient care in the US from the first calendar quarter (Q1) of 2018 to the second calendar quarter (Q2) of 2020.
Main outcomes and measures: Visit type (office-based or telemedicine), overall and stratified by patient population and geographic region; assessment of blood pressure or cholesterol measurement; and initiation or continuation of prescription medications.
Results: In the 8 calendar quarters between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2019, between 122.4 million (95% CI, 117.3-127.5 million) and 130.3 million (95% CI, 124.7-135.9 million) quarterly primary care visits occurred in the US (mean, 125.8 million; 95% CI, 121.7-129.9 million), most of which were office-based (92.9%). In 2020, the total number of encounters decreased to 117.9 million (95% CI, 112.6-123.2 million) in Q1 and 99.3 million (95% CI, 94.9-103.8 million) in Q2, a decrease of 21.4% (27.0 million visits) from the average of Q2 levels during 2018 and 2019. Office-based visits decreased 50.2% (59.1 million visits) in Q2 of 2020 compared with Q2 2018-2019, while telemedicine visits increased from 1.1% of total Q2 2018-2019 visits (1.4 million quarterly visits) to 4.1% in Q1 of 2020 (4.8 million visits) and 35.3% in Q2 of 2020 (35.0 million visits). Decreases occurred in blood pressure level assessment (50.1% decrease, 44.4 million visits) and cholesterol level assessment (36.9% decrease, 10.2 million visits) in Q2 of 2020 compared with Q2 2018-2019 levels, and assessment was less common during telemedicine than during office-based visits (9.6% vs 69.7% for blood pressure; P < .001; 13.5% vs 21.6% for cholesterol; P < .001). New medication visits in Q2 of 2020 decreased by 26.0% (14.1 million visits) from Q2 2018-2019 levels. Telemedicine adoption occurred at similar rates among White individuals and Black individuals (19.3% vs 20.5% of patient visits, respectively, in Q1/Q2 of 2020), varied by region (low of 15.1% of visits [East North Central region], high of 26.8% of visits [Pacific region]), and was not correlated with regional COVID-19 burden.
Conclusions and relevance: The COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with changes in the structure of primary care delivery, with the content of telemedicine visits differing from that of office-based encounters.