A post-COVID increase in telemedicine utilization has lowered the number of subacute cases in emergency departments.

EDs can stay flexible (and viable) by acting on what their data tells them and adapting to changes.

In 2020, telemedicine utilization surged as patients sought access to providers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to McKinsey data, usage in the United States peaked in April 2020, with a $250 billion shift to virtual care by mid-2021. With favorable regulatory changes that have sustained growth, it looks like the technology is here to stay.

What is the impact on emergency departments?

Emergency departments have long faced the problem of overcrowding due to a large number of subacute patients. Before the pandemic, there already was some effort to direct these patients to urgent care centers and telemedicine, and COVID has accelerated that trend.

There have been dips in the use of telemedicine in the past few months, but the numbers largely depend on the type of care. If trends continue, there are some projections we can make about how the technology will impact EDs.

1.  High-acuity visits will continue to increase. While overall ED utilization has decreased since the beginning of the pandemic, a study of 141 EDs in 16 states in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine revealed some deeper trends. After shelter-in-place was lifted, the number of lower-acuity visits remained low, while high-acuity visits did not decrease from pre-pandemic levels. Lower-acuity encounters moved to other care settings, including telemedicine, urgent care, and primary care. As a result, overall acuity of ED patients has risen, requiring a new look at staffing and skill levels, equipment usage, reimbursement, and other operational factors.

In order to adapt to this new scenario, it will be important for individual EDs to beef up their data analytics game to drive new strategies.

2. There will be a reduced reliance on the emergency room for non-urgent care. Along with the increased use of virtual telemedicine is a decrease in the use of the emergency department for non-urgent care. One health system concluded that nearly 15% of its virtual patients would have visited the emergency room had they not had access to virtual urgent care. This figure mirrors a claims-based analysis conducted by McKinsey & Company which suggests that 20% of ED visits could be avoided through virtual care options.

3. The overall percentage of mental health or substance abuse patients will increase. Among the many social and economic impacts of COVID-19, mental health has been a big one. Isolation and stress have been widely reported, as well as increased rates of alcohol and substance abuse. Current figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 40% increase in adult mental health struggles and substance use. Yet visits for these issues are the least affected by telemedicine. Behavioral telemedicine has its place, but it generally is used for ongoing, routine therapy and not in the acute phases of illness.

Moving Forward With Technology

Historically, once a new technology emerges and becomes widely adopted, it doesn’t regress. Social media, online shopping, and online banking, for instance, were groundbreaking at first but have all become widely accepted. Telemedicine use has stabilized and shows no signs of moving backward as the market steadies.

Using customized data analytics by d2i, you can determine how the pandemic and telehealth — and other factors — have affected your emergency department. Overall trends are one thing, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that in every region, each hospital has its own hurdles to overcome. With our powerful Emergency Medicine Performance Analytics, you can find the insights behind the trends to determine the highest-impact opportunities and then monitor the impact as you implement new processes. Contact our experts to learn more or to request a demo.