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5th Wave of COVID Tracking Research Released by Phreesia, Harvard, & Commonwealth Fund

In mid-October, the latest wave of research tracking COVID’s impact on outpatient visits was published by Commonwealth Fund, Harvard, and Phreesia. The latest data found that overall outpatient care visits in the prior month have finally returned to prepandemic levels, after dropping nearly 60% during the spring. (This fifth wave data set tracked trends through October 10th.) Not only did overall visit counts per week return to normal levels, but they even “slightly exceed” pre-COVID counts. But, as researchers noted, “there is considerable variation by patient age, geographic area, clinical specialty, and insurance coverage.”

While all age groups are on an upward trajectory again since the spring weeks, “visits for younger children remain substantially below the prepandemic baseline,” noted the report. Those aged 6 years or older all exceed prepandemic levels (6% above baseline for ages 6-17; 4% for ages 18-64; 5% for ages 65-74; 4% for ages 75+). Children ages 0-2 years are recording at 18% below baseline and ages 3-5 are coming in at 10% below baseline.

Weekly visits to dermatologist offices and adult primary care appointments are showing the highest level of rebounds, coming in at 17% and 13% above baseline, respectively. Areas such as OBGYN and Oncology are even with baseline. While pulmonology, otolaryngology, and behavioral health visits each track well below baseline at -20%, -17%, and -14%, respectively.

The researchers also detailed that while “telemedicine use has slowly but steadily declined” after peaking in April, its usage is still “well above the prepandemic baseline of very few telemedicine visits.” The use of telehealth varies depending on the medical specialties: areas such as surgical record low level usage (2% of total visits), but behavioral health outpaces other areas significantly (41% of total visits). Telemedicine’s implementation does vary by provider organization as well. For example, “organizations of six or more clinicians use more telemedicine than practices of one to five.” Additionally, the report finds that approximately 32% of organizations “never adopted [it] at all”. Those that did, however, have seen their use of it decrease to Minimal usage in the fall after Heavy or Moderate usage in the spring.

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