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Shifts in office and virtual primary care during the early COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, Canada

Glazier RH, Green ME, Wu FC, Frymire E, Kopp A, Kiran T. CMAJ. 2021; 193(6):E200-10. Epub 2021 Feb 8. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.202303


Background — Globally, primary care changed dramatically as a result of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. We aimed to understand the degree to which office and virtual primary care changed, and for which patients and physicians, during the initial months of the pandemic in Ontario, Canada.

Methods — This population-based study compared comprehensive, linked primary care physician billing data from January 1 to July 28, 2020 with the same period in 2019. We identified Ontario residents with at least 1 office or virtual (telephone or video) visit during the study period. We used interrupted time series analysis to compare trends in total physician visits, office visits and virtual visits before COVID-19 with trends after pandemic-related public health measures drastically changed the delivery of care, according to various patient and physician characteristics.

Results — Compared with 2019, total primary care visits between March and July 2020 decreased by 28.0%, from 7.66 to 5.51 per 1000 people/day. The smallest declines were among patients who could not be attributed to a primary care physician (10.2%), those with the highest expected health care use (8.3%) and older adults (19.1%). In contrast, total visits in rural areas increased by 6.4%. Office visits declined by 79.1% and virtual care increased 56-fold, comprising 71.1% of primary care physician visits. The lowest uptake of virtual care was among children (57.6%), rural residents (60.6%) and physicians with panels of ≥ 2500 patients (66.0%).

Interpretation — Primary care in Ontario saw large shifts from office to virtual care over the first 4 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Total visits declined least among those with higher health care needs. The determinants and consequences of these major shifts in care require further study.

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