VHA in-person doctor visits for veterans fell by 50% during the COVID-19 pandemic, while virtual visits increased by more than 360%, study shows
- Many veteran patients stopped seeing their doctors in person during the pandemic and switched to virtual care instead, new study finds
- The number of in-person visits decreased by more than 50% between December 2019 and December 2020
- Virtual care visits saw more than 300% increase in usage over the same period
- Overall, fewer Americans have access to medical care during the pandemic, a worrying long-term trend as many miss routine screenings and treatment
Veteran Health Administration (VHA) patients have strongly advocated virtual healthcare visits for in-person visits during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study finds.
A joint research team from the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System and Stanford University, both located in California, found a 51.5 percent decrease in in-person visits for VHA patients in December 2020 compared to December of the previous year.
The researchers also found a 362.7 percent increase in virtual care visits during the same period.
There was also a worrying overall decline in health care use from 2019 to 2020, suggesting that many were missing out on regular treatment and other preventive screenings during the pandemic.
Researchers found a sharp drop in in-person healthcare visits, by more than 50%, during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, virtual visits peaked with four times as many patients using it. There was an overall decline in overall health care use
The overall decline in health care use during the COVID-19 pandemic may have resulted in thousands of deaths unrelated to the virus as people skipped regular treatments and screenings for other conditions. Pictured: A woman in New York City, New York, receives medical care at a VHA medical center on April 24
Investigators, who published their findings Thursday in JAMA Network Open, examined health records for patient visits, either with the VHA or paid for by the agency with a third-party provider.
From January 2019 to March 2021, nearly 180 million care visits were made for 6.7 million patients.
The team compared encounter data from April 2019 to April 2020 to see how patients initially responded to the pandemic.
The total number of patient visits, both in-person and virtual, decreased by 43.8 percent from 7.5 million in 2019 to 4.2 million a year later.
That loss was mainly attributable to a sharp decline in in-person visits, with an 88 percent drop from 4.7 million to just 532,000 from April 2019 to 2020.
Researchers did find a spike in virtual visits during the first month of the pandemic, with 1.9 million virtual doctor visits in April 2020, 317 percent more than the 454,000 visits a year earlier.
The team then compared the numbers from December 2019 to December 2020 to find out how patients’ behavior had changed nine months after the pandemic.
Total doctor visits in 2022 were still lower than in 2019, although the margin was much smaller.
In December 2019 there were 6.9 million VHA doctor visits. That number has shrunk to 6.4 million in 2020, a decrease of 6.6 percent.
Patients also felt more comfortable returning to the doctor’s office in person than before, with visits only halving from 3.9 million in December 2019 to 1.9 million in 2020 — not nearly as big a drop as in April.
Virtual visits grew at a similar pace, rising 363 percent from 400,000 visits in December 2019 to 1.8 million in 2020.
“Our results indicate that the VHA likely adopted a more conservative reopening strategy compared to community health care providers,” researchers wrote of their findings.
The overall decline in the number of patients seeking medical care is a worrying trend that many experts worldwide have noticed.
Many patients who were regularly treated for a variety of conditions had their treatment disrupted by the pandemic — causing some people to die from preventable deaths.
Drug overdoses, in particular, rose — a record 96,000 people died of drug overdoses in the US from March 2020 to 2021 — with many users not receiving or seeking treatment.
People who sought treatment during the pandemic were also often in worse than average condition, implying that regular tests and screening interrupted by Covid have left their detectable conditions undetected until they became serious problems.
Previous studies have shown that there were fewer kidney disease and cancer patients seeking treatment during the pandemic, but those who did were in a worse condition.
These factors may have resulted in more people dying from additional causes than from the virus itself during the pandemic.