Cigna: Some COVID-19 patients report lingering neurological, heart conditions post-recovery

People who have recovered from a COVID-19 diagnosis face potentially new diagnoses for neurological, behavioral health and cardiovascular conditions, new data from Cigna show.

Cigna researchers analyzed (PDF) claims data on 150,000 commercial plan members and their family members between April and June 2020 and found that 5.8% reported neurological conditions post-COVID.

In addition, 5.1% reported heart conditions such as heart failure or coronary artery disease, and 5% reported mental health disorders following a COVID-19 diagnosis, the study found.

"If you think of all of the viral illnesses we see...this is pretty unusual," Steve Miller, M.D., Cigna's chief clinical officer, told Fierce Healthcare. "There's a lot we don't know about this infection, still."

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The study also found that 5.7% of patients in the study reported continued respiratory conditions following COVID-19, and 3.7% said they developed renal and/or urinary conditions after recovering from the virus.

Experts expect mental health, in particular, to be an ongoing challenge even once the pandemic ends. This is a pattern that's been observed in previous disasters, Miller said.

"Every natural disaster has taught us that it gets even worst post the event," he said. "People kind of hold it together best they can during the disaster, but after the disaster it gets even worse."

He said that at present the population struggling most with mental health is young adults aged 18 to 23. Trends take a "u" shape, he said, with young children and the elderly proving the most resilient in terms of their mental health. 

However, young adults are especially struggling with the impact of social distancing, the uncertainty of navigating the end of high school, college or early career in the pandemic scenario, Miller said.

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But there is some good news in the study, he said. Employers who are proactively addressing patient's lingering symptoms can get them back to work more quickly and improve their productivity.

Previous research into the lingering effects of COVID conducted by Cigna found that these symptoms can be a significant hindrance in getting people back to work after recovering from the infection. More than half of the people surveyed for that study said they were still experiencing lingering symptoms from COVID-19.

Members who were enrolled in Cigna's case management program while recovering from COVID-19 were less likely to experience the lingering symptoms and got back to work eight days sooner, according to the study. Employers also saved as much as $2,000 on individual monthly healthcare costs through the intervention.

In the program, a Cigna care manager would reach out to each patient to ensure they were following aftercare instructions and to direct them whenever possible to services to assist with lingering needs identified in those conversations.

Miller said an example would be a case manager stepping to ensure that a patient with lingering respiratory symptoms is using their inhaler appropriately, and seeing their doctor for follow-up as appropriate.

"That’s actually really, really important because that’s how we’re going to help people through this both clinically but also the system through this financially," Miller said.