Patient volumes will recover to levels before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2022, but emergency department visits are projected to decline through 2029, a new report found.
The report, released Monday by healthcare improvement company Vizient, detailed some changes to patient volumes that could remain permanent due to the pandemic, including a shift towards virtual care.
“We’re going to see a strong recovery over the next six months in terms of healthcare utilization with overall outpatient demand surpassing 2019 volumes,” said Madeleine McDowell, principal and medical director of Vizient subsidiary Sg2, in a statement. Sg2 examines healthcare trends and developed the report based on data from federal and private sources. “However, not everything will return to pre-pandemic levels.”
Vizient found that hospital outpatient departments and ambulatory surgery centers are expected to show growth, with a projected increase in volume by 15 million from 2019 to 2029.
“The shift in procedures from inpatient to outpatient and from [hospital outpatient departments] to [ambulatory surgery centers] will help drive down the cost of surgical procedures,” the report said.
Another key reason for the shift is that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is expected to expand the number of procedures covered by ambulatory surgery centers by 278 by the end of 2023, the report said.
Ambulatory surgery centers are expected to see a 14% growth from 2019 to 2024 as a result of this shift.
But while demand is expected to surge in these outpatient and surgery centers, emergency department visits are expected to decline due to the proliferation of alternative sites of care.
Emergency department visits have been one of the areas that have not rebounded as much as other areas of healthcare after steep drops due to the pandemic.
Vizient projects that emergency department visits are going to decline by 5% (4.8 million people) by 2029. Part of the reason is that lower acuity emergency department visits will shift towards urgent care clinics and doctors’ offices.
“At the same time, Americans will spend 12.5 million more days in the hospital (9% increase) driven by a rise in chronic diseases, an older population that requires more care and new innovations increasing the number of treatable conditions,” a release on the report said.
But Vizient also projects a greater shift to home care towards the end of the decade. Home-based services could increase by 15% in 2029 to an estimated volume of 474.9 million, the report said.
A major source of this growth could come from hospital-at-home programs that ensure patients can be remotely monitored and treated virtually in the home. Hospital systems are starting to increase their investments in such programs.
Mayo and Kaiser Permanente made a $100 million investment last month to scale up their hospital at home programs.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services gave more flexibility for hospitals to set up such programs as part of a greater effort to remove telehealth and virtual care barriers due to the pandemic. However, it remains unclear if that flexibility will remain once the pandemic fully ends.