Jun 8, 2021 - Health

Emergency room visits of all kinds dropped amid the pandemic

Illustration of shrinking sirens.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Emergency room visits decreased drastically at the beginning of the pandemic, even among patients suffering from the most severe health conditions, according to a new study released yesterday in Health Affairs.

Why it matters: The study suggests that patients avoided a wide range of care — including for some life-threatening conditions — and not just care that is easily delayed.

By the numbers: The study found that emergency room visits decreased by 35% overall across a health system in the St. Louis metro area after the announcement of a stay-at-home order.

  • The most serious visits — those for emergency, nonpreventable care — decreased by 40%, and nonemergency visits decreased by 52%.
  • Mental health visits decreased by 32%, and visits due to alcohol and drugs didn't see a significant decrease.
  • Patients with Medicaid and private insurance saw larger decreases than those with Medicare. There were no observable differences by race.

Between the lines: High-stakes emergency room visits dropped a concerning amount, while low-stakes visits didn't decrease enough.

  • A decrease in ED visits for non-emergency care could be seen as a good thing for the system which too often sees overuse.
  • However, the data indicates many people who truly needed care didn't seek it out, while many of those who could have waited or gotten care elsewhere still showed up.
Go deeper