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Harvard Researchers Find Outpatient Visits Are Back to Pre-Pandemic Levels

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Harvard researchers discovered that the level of outpatient visits — hospital visits that do not require overnight hospitalization — has largely returned to pre-pandemic numbers.

The team has been analyzing different trends in the numbers and types of outpatient visits made across varying demographics since May using data from Phreesia, a company providing health care patient intake software.

Ateev Mehrotra, a health care professor at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the analysis, said the data shows COVID-19’s widespread negative effect on the ability of patients to receive various medical treatments.

“From a public health perspective, when we think about the impact of this pandemic, there are spillovers or other effects that may be even larger in terms of the deaths and morbidity that we see from this virus,” Mehrotra said. “What I mean specifically, is that patients who have cancer, heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, asthma, and on and on, did not get the care they needed, because of the pandemic.”

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Although the analysis showed cumulative outpatient visit numbers had largely recovered from a nearly 60 percent decrease in April, the number of such visits for children between zero and five are still between 10 and 20 percent below pre-pandemic levels. Mehrotra said this drop may be due to parents’ precautions to prevent their children from contracting COVID-19 at a clinic or an overall decrease in illness spread among children due to stay-at-home measures.

Mehrotra also noted the unexpected result that, although 41 percent of behavioral health providers employed telemedicine methods in the most recent data, the number of behavioral health visits has still remained below the pre-pandemic baseline.

“One of the very surprising findings was that behavioral health providers were providing, at least in this sample, fewer visits than from baseline — not at all what I expected,” Mehrotra said. “Because there's more need, and there's less supply, that raises the concern about unmet need, and that the American public, or some Americans at least, are suffering with their symptoms and not getting the care that they need.”

The report also emphasized that the patient’s type of insurance and the providers’ number of clinicians both have impacted the number of outpatient visits, with Medicare patients now making more appointments than before the pandemic and larger healthcare practices seeing more visits.

Mehrotra said the dataset may not be generalizable to the U.S. population as it only includes health care providers using the Phreesia platform.

Mehrotra said his team will continue to publish outpatient visit tracking reports as long as they continue to be used by government and health care officials.

“Policymakers at state to the federal level, Congressional Budget Office — those kinds of organizations, they found these data useful because they are very up to date," he said. "And so, to the degree that these data continue to be useful, we'll continue to produce them.”

—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at ethan.lee@thecrimson.com.

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