Impact of COVID-19 lockdown on patient-provider electronic communications

J Telemed Telecare. 2023 Jan 19;1357633X221146810. doi: 10.1177/1357633X221146810. Online ahead of print.


Background: SARS CoV-2 virus (COVID-19) impacted the practice of healthcare in the United States, with technology being used to facilitate access to care and reduce iatrogenic spread. Since then, patient message volume to primary care providers has increased. However, the volume and trend of electronic communications after lockdown remain poorly described in the literature.

Methods: All incoming inbox items (telephone calls, refill requests, and electronic messages) sent to providers from patients amongst four primary care clinics were collected. Inbox item rates were calculated as a ratio of items per patient encountered each week. Trends in inbox rates were assessed during 12 months before and after lockdown (March 1st, 2020). Logistic regression was utilized to examine the effects of the lockdown on inbox item rate post-COVID-19 lockdown as compared to the pre-lockdown period.

Results: Before COVID-19 lockdown, 2.07 new inbox items per encounter were received, which increased to 2.83 items after lockdown. However, only patient-initiated electronic messages increased after lockdown and stabilized at a rate higher than the pre-COVID-19 period (aRR 1.27, p-value < 0.001). In contrast, prescription refill requests and telephone calls quickly spiked, then returned to pre-lockdown levels.

Conclusion: Based on our observations, providers experienced a quick increase in all inbox items. However, only electronic messages had a sustained increase, exacerbating the workload of administrators, staff, and clinical providers. This study directly correlates healthcare technology adoption to a significant disruptive event but also shows additional challenges to the healthcare system that must be considered with these changes.

Keywords: COVID-19; EHR; electronic health record; electronic messages; in-basket; inbox; pandemic; patient portals; patient-provider communication; primary care; telehealth.