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Virtual care use during the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on healthcare utilization in patients with chronic disease: a population-based repeated cross-sectional study

Stamenova V, Chu C, Pang A, Fang J, Shakeri A, Cram P, Bhattacharyya O, Bhatia RS, Tadrous M. PLoS One. 2022; 17(4):e0267218. Epub 2022 Apr 25. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267218


Purpose — It is currently unclear how the shift towards virtual care during the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic may have impacted chronic disease management at a population level. The goals of our study were to provide a description of the levels of use of virtual care services relative to in-person care in patients with chronic disease across Ontario, Canada and to describe levels of healthcare utilization in low versus high virtual care users.

Methods — We used linked health administrative data to conduct a population-based, repeated cross-sectional study of all ambulatory patient visits in Ontario, Canada (January 1, 2018 to January 16, 2021). Further stratifications were also completed to examine patients with COPD, heart failure, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, mental illness, and angina. Patients were classified as low (max 1 virtual care visit) vs. high virtual care users. A time-series analysis was done using interventional autoregressive integrated moving average (ARIMA) modelling on weekly hospitalizations, outpatient visits, and diagnostic tests.

Results — The use of virtual care increased across all chronic disease patient populations. Virtual care constituted at least half of the total care in all conditions. Both low and high virtual care user groups experienced a statistically significant reduction in hospitalizations and laboratory testing at the start of the pandemic. Hospitalization volumes increased again only among the high users, while testing increased in both groups. Outpatient visits among high users remained unaffected by the pandemic but dropped in low users.

Conclusion — The decrease of in-person care during the pandemic was accompanied by an increase in virtual care, which ultimately allowed patients with chronic disease to return to the same visit rate as they had before the onset of the pandemic. Virtual care was adopted across various chronic conditions, but the relative adoption of virtual care varied by condition with highest rates seen in mental health.

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