As we shared recently, post-pandemic healthcare volume is not returning evenly. While outpatient volume is rebounding quickly, other settings remain sluggish, especially the emergency department. We partnered with healthcare data analytics company Stratasan to take a closer look at ED volume decline. As shown in the graphic above, nationally, ED visits were down 27 percent in 2020, compared to 2019. ED-only volume (cases that started and ended in the ED) took a large hit across last year, down nearly a third from 2019. We expect that a portion of this ED-only volume will never fully recover to pre-COVID levels, with patient demand permanently shifting to lower-acuity care settings, including virtual, and some patients avoiding care altogether for minor ailments as they learn to “live with” problems like back pain.
ED-to-observation volume saw the greatest decline in 2020, likely as a result both of patients avoiding the ED, and presenting in the ED sicker, meeting the criteria for inpatient admission. However, ED-to-inpatient volume, which fell only seven percent in 2020, has been returning. In the second half of 2020, the ED-to-inpatient admission rate was 20 to 30 percent higher than the pre-COVID baseline. Across all three categories of ED volume, pediatrics saw steeper declines compared to adult cases. While some further ED volume rebound is anticipated, health systems should expect that fewer, but sicker, patients will be the new normal for hospital emergency departments.
Fewer low-acuity patients utilizing high-cost emergency care is good news from a public health perspective, but health systems must bolster other access channels like urgent care and telemedicine to ensure patients have convenient access for emergent care needs.