Rural Hospitals Experienced More Patient Volume Variability Than Urban Hospitals During The COVID-19 Pandemic, 2020-21

Health Aff (Millwood). 2024 May;43(5):641-650. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2023.00678.


Fluctuations in patient volume during the COVID-19 pandemic may have been particularly concerning for rural hospitals. We examined hospital discharge data from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project State Inpatient Databases to compare data from the COVID-19 pandemic period (March 8, 2020-December 31, 2021) with data from the prepandemic period (January 1, 2017-March 7, 2020). Changes in average daily medical volume at rural hospitals showed a dose-response relationship with community COVID-19 burden, ranging from a 13.2 percent decrease in patient volume in periods of low transmission to a 16.5 percent increase in volume in periods of high transmission. Overall, about 35 percent of rural hospitals experienced fluctuations exceeding 20 percent (in either direction) in average daily total volume, in contrast to only 13 percent of urban hospitals experiencing similar magnitudes of changes. Rural hospitals with a large change in average daily volume were more likely to be smaller, government-owned, and critical access hospitals and to have significantly lower operating margins. Our findings suggest that rural hospitals may have been more vulnerable operationally and financially to volume shifts during the pandemic, which warrants attention because of the potential impact on these hospitals' long-term sustainability.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Hospitals, Rural* / statistics & numerical data
  • Hospitals, Urban*
  • Humans
  • Pandemics*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • United States