Healthcare utilization in children across the care continuum during the COVID-19 pandemic

PLoS One. 2022 Oct 27;17(10):e0276461. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0276461. eCollection 2022.

Abstract

Objectives: Healthcare utilization decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, likely due to reduced transmission of infections and healthcare avoidance. Though various investigations have described these changing patterns in children, most have analyzed specific care settings. We compared healthcare utilization, prescriptions, and diagnosis patterns in children across the care continuum during the first year of the pandemic with preceding years.

Study design: Using national claims data, we compared enrollees under 18 years during the pre-pandemic (January 2016 -mid-March 2020) and pandemic (mid-March 2020 through March 2021) periods. The pandemic was further divided into early (mid-March through mid-June 2020) and middle (mid-June 2020 through March 2021) periods. Utilization was compared using interrupted time series.

Results: The mean number of pediatric enrollees/month was 2,519,755 in the pre-pandemic and 2,428,912 in the pandemic period. Utilization decreased across all settings in the early pandemic, with the greatest decrease (76.9%, 95% confidence interval [CI] 72.6-80.5%) seen for urgent care visits. Only well visits returned to pre-pandemic rates during the mid-pandemic. Hospitalizations decreased by 43% (95% CI 37.4-48.1) during the early pandemic and were still 26.6% (17.7-34.6) lower mid-pandemic. However, hospitalizations in non-psychiatric facilities for various mental health disorders increased substantially mid-pandemic.

Conclusion: Healthcare utilization in children dropped substantially during the first year of the pandemic, with a shift away from infectious diseases and a spike in mental health hospitalizations. These findings are important to characterize as we monitor the health of children, can be used to inform healthcare strategies during subsequent COVID-19 surges and/or future pandemics, and may help identify training gaps for pediatric trainees. Subsequent investigations should examine how changes in healthcare utilization impacted the incidence and outcomes of specific diseases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Ambulatory Care
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Continuity of Patient Care
  • Humans
  • Pandemics*
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care
  • Retrospective Studies

Grants and funding

ARS received funding for biostatistical support through a private fund (Michael Enright Fund). The donors of this fund played no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.