Sluggish patient volume could jeopardize hospitals repaying advanced Medicare funds, report suggests

By | June 1, 2020

Dive Brief:

  • Though hospital volumes are expected to remain below pre-pandemic levels for quite some time, rebounding outpatient visits seem to be outpacing those for inpatient care or emergency department visits, according to a Transunion Healthcare survey of more than 500 hospitals.
  • During the week of May 10-16, outpatient visits were down 31% and emergency visits were down 40% compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. Inpatient volumes were down 20% and continue to trend upward, though at a slower rate than outpatient or ER visit volumes. Outpatient visits plunged between April 5 and 11, hitting a bottom of 64% down from typical volume.​
  • Baby boomers (born between 1944 and 1964) and the what the report calls the silent generation (born before 1944) are returning to ERs faster than younger generations. Millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) and Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2002) patients, however, are driving positive trends in inpatient and outpatient rebounds.

Dive Insight:

The report echos several others suggesting patients are still cautious about returning to the hospital and other care settings. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that the pandemic has forced nearly half of patients to postpone medical care. About 32% of those who have postponed care said they would get the service in the next three months and 10% said they will do so in four months to a year.

The overall sluggish outlook led Transunion to suggest patient volumes may not be restored to pre-pandemic levels soon enough to both sustain operational and clinical functions and repay advanced Medicare payments that many systems large and small have taken advantage of from CMS.

Because of the demographic trends, systems may have greater success scheduling appointments by checking in first with younger generations, the report suggests.

“We think as providers are beginning to really drive their patient engagement strategies that it’s best if they start reaching out to them, because it’s likely they’ll be willing to re-enter the care setting,” John Yount, vice president for TransUnion Healthcare, told Healthcare Dive.

Providers are taking steps to ease patient fears upon returning to medical settings by implementing temperature checks, spacing out waiting rooms to allow for social distancing and taking other safety measures.

But a sluggish recovery is still likely as patients plan to continue delaying care, especially older adults who are at higher risk for COVID-19 and in some states have been told to continue following stay at home orders.

The slowest return to growth in emergency room visits raises concerns that patients who need emergency care may be avoiding hospital settings due to COVID-19 fears, according to the report.

Older patients are leading the pack in returning to ERs, and they also experienced the largest decline in inpatient volumes from March 1-7 and April 5-11.

Comparatively, younger generations had smaller declines in visit activity overall and are returning to care settings faster, Yount said.

“These deferrals will have implications for both patients and providers — high-acuity and chronically-ill patients risk waiting too long to seek care, and a continued reduction in visit volume will further amplify existing financial challenges for hospitals,” David Wojczynski, president of TransUnion Healthcare, said in a statement.

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