Survey: Patient volumes returning to pre-pandemic levels

June and July saw hospitals getting back to 2019 levels of patient volume.

Hospitals are making their comeback from the COVID-19 pandemic as patient volumes rose to 2019 levels during the summer.

According to a survey from consulting firm McKinsey & Company, in June and July U.S. hospital volumes returned to pre-pandemic levels with respondents expecting them to continuing to throughout the second half of 2021. They expect patient volumes to by 5 to 8 percent higher than 2019 levels by 2022.

The positive outlook is not uniform across the country as hospitals in the west remain below 2019 levels across inpatient, procedural, and emergency care. Meanwhile, the Midwest has seen the fastest rebound compared to 2019 with volumes up 3 to 9 percent across all sites of care in June and July, the survey says.

The greatest volume increases were seen in outpatient care, which respondents expect to be about 9 percent higher than 2019 levels in 2023. Patient demand is expected to exceed provider capacity in the next six months for psychiatry and orthopedic surgery, meanwhile plastic surgery and ophthalmology saw the greatest decrease in outpatient volume in June compared to 2019, according to the survey.

The outlook isn’t entirely rosy though as about 45 percent of respondents said that access to specialty care is far worse than it was in 2019. More than 50 percent of responding hospitals say they are expanding clinical hours in an attempt to boost outpatient access while about 30 percent say they’re increasing physician productivity expectations because of COVID-19. Many providers are planning to take other actions to increase surgical throughput, such as optimizing operating room scheduling and expanding hours, the survey says.

Respondent providers anticipate shifting 10 percent of their surgical volume to outpatient settings by 2023. Such a scheme would lead to about 57 percent of procedures would be outpatient, according to the survey.

Telehealth on the rise

The question now is whether the expansion of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic will slow or blunt this return to in-office visits, as previously reported nearly one-third of adults have had a virtual visit with their doctor in the past year.

The service is also proving to be effective as eight out of 10 adults said that their primary health issue was resolved by a telehealth visit. This isn’t surprising as 63 percent of telehealth visits were for a preventive service, routine visits for chronic illness, or for prescription refills. In these cases, audio-only visits were as likely to resolve patient issues as video visits.

The telehealth boom is keeping capacity open in emergency departments and urgent cares as one in seven people who have had a telehealth visit would have sought treatment in an emergency department or an urgent care if the service was unavailable. Furthermore, two in 10 adults say they would have delayed or not sought care at all if telehealth had not been available. Only 4 percent of respondents who had used telehealth were subsequently redirected to an emergency department.

Patients are also happy with the care provided during their telehealth visits, as nine out of 10 adults reported being satisfied with the quality of their telehealth visit and are likely to use it in the future. This is very pronounced in the older community as 95 percent of Medicare beneficiaries expressed their satisfaction with the service.