Background: The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has critically affected healthcare delivery in the United States. Little is known on its impact on the utilization of emergency department (ED) services, particularly for conditions that might be medically urgent. The objective of this study was to explore trends in the number of outpatient (treat and release) ED visits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional, retrospective study of outpatient emergency department visits from January 1, 2019 to August 31, 2020 using data from a large, urban, academic hospital system in Utah. Using weekly counts and trend analyses, we explored changes in overall ED visits, by patients' area of residence, by medical urgency, and by specific medical conditions.
Results: While outpatient ED visits were higher (+6.0%) in the first trimester of 2020 relative to the same period in 2019, the overall volume between January and August of 2020 was lower (-8.1%) than in 2019. The largest decrease occurred in April 2020 (-30.4%), followed by the May to August period (-12.8%). The largest declines were observed for visits by out-of-state residents, visits classified as non-emergent, primary care treatable or preventable, and for patients diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes, headaches and migraines, mood and personality disorders, fluid and electrolyte disorders, and abdominal pain. Outpatient ED visits for emergent conditions, such as palpitations and tachycardia, open wounds, syncope and collapse remained relatively unchanged, while lower respiratory disease-related visits were 67.5% higher in 2020 relative to 2019, particularly from March to April 2020. However, almost all types of outpatient ED visits bounced back after May 2020.
Conclusions: Overall outpatient ED visits declined from mid-March to August 2020, particularly for non-medically urgent conditions which can be treated in other more appropriate care settings. Our findings also have implications for insurers, policymakers, and other stakeholders seeking to assist patients in choosing more appropriate setting for their care during and after the pandemic.
Keywords: COVID-19; Emergency department; Healthcare utilization; Non-urgent visits.
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