The COVID-19 pandemic has strong effects on most health care systems. Forecasting of admissions can help for the efficient organisation of hospital care. We aimed to forecast the number of admissions to psychiatric hospitals before and during the COVID-19 pandemic and we compared the performance of machine learning models and time series models. This would eventually allow to support timely resource allocation for optimal treatment of patients. We used admission data from 9 psychiatric hospitals in Germany between 2017 and 2020. We compared machine learning models with time series models in weekly, monthly and yearly forecasting before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. A total of 90,686 admissions were analysed. The models explained up to 90% of variance in hospital admissions in 2019 and 75% in 2020 with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The best models substantially outperformed a one-step seasonal naïve forecast (seasonal mean absolute scaled error (sMASE) 2019: 0.59, 2020: 0.76). The best model in 2019 was a machine learning model (elastic net, mean absolute error (MAE): 7.25). The best model in 2020 was a time series model (exponential smoothing state space model with Box-Cox transformation, ARMA errors and trend and seasonal components, MAE: 10.44). Models forecasting admissions one week in advance did not perform better than monthly and yearly models in 2019 but they did in 2020. The most important features for the machine learning models were calendrical variables. Model performance did not vary much between different modelling approaches before the COVID-19 pandemic and established forecasts were substantially better than one-step seasonal naïve forecasts. However, weekly time series models adjusted quicker to the COVID-19 related shock effects. In practice, multiple individual forecast horizons could be used simultaneously, such as a yearly model to achieve early forecasts for a long planning period and weekly models to adjust quicker to sudden changes.
© 2022. The Author(s).