Urban-rural disparities in interfacility transfers for children during COVID-19

J Rural Health. 2023 Jun;39(3):611-616. doi: 10.1111/jrh.12746. Epub 2023 Jan 29.


Purpose: We aimed to identify temporal trends and differences in urban and rural pediatric interfacility transfers (IFTs) before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional analysis of IFT among children <18 years from January 2019 to June 2022 using the Pediatric Health Information System. The primary outcome was IFTs from general hospitals to referral children's hospitals. The primary exposure was patient rurality, defined by Rural-Urban Commuting Area codes. We categorized IFTs into medical, surgical, and mental health diagnoses and analyzed trends by month. We calculated observed-to-expected (O-E) ratios of pre-pandemic (March 2019-Feb 2020) transfers compared to pandemic year 1 (March 2020-Feb 2021) and year 2 (March 2021-February 2022) using Poisson modeling.

Findings: Of 419,250 IFTs, 18.8% (n = 78,751) were experienced by rural-residing children. The O-E ratio of IFT in year 1 for urban children was 14.0% (95% confidence interval [CI] 13.8, 14.2) and 14.8% (95% CI 14.4, 15.3) for rural children compared to pre-pandemic (P = .0001). In year 2, transfers rebounded with IFTs for rural-residing children increasing more than urban-residing children (101.7% [95% CI 100.1, 103.4] compared to 90.7% [95% CI 89.0, 90.4], P < .0001). For mental-health indications in year 2, rural transfer ratios were higher than urban, 126.8% (95% CI, 116.7, 137.6) compared to 113.7% (95% CI 109.9, 117.6), P = .0168.

Conclusions: Pediatric IFTs decreased dramatically during pandemic year 1. In year 2, while medical and surgical transfers continued to lag pre-pandemic volumes, transfers for mental health indications significantly exceeded pre-pandemic levels, particularly among rural-residing children.

Keywords: health disparities; hospitals; utilization of health services.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Pandemics*
  • Rural Population
  • Transportation