The Healthcare System Is Facing Higher Acuity And More Sick Patients

Though the Covid-19 pandemic truly tested the capabilities of healthcare systems worldwide, the aftermath has created a similar problem: patients are sicker than ever before, and are requiring higher levels of care.

The American Hospital Association recently published an article discussing how “Pandemic-Driven Deferred Care Has Led to Increased Patient Acuity in America’s Hospitals.” In essence, the central concept is that many people deferred their care during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to an overall deterioration of health. Now, many of these patients require a higher level of care, which is stressing the healthcare system.

The article explains: “At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities across America entered mandatory quarantines and temporarily shut down many every day services such as schools, retail stores and libraries. This was done to help control the spread of the virus and protect people and communities […] At the same time, many Americans avoided or delayed seeking care, including primary care and other specialty care visits.” The result: “COVID-19 treatment is highly complex and resource-intensive, which has been a driver of overall increases in patient acuity during the pandemic. However, non-COVID-19-care has increasingly contributed to rising patient acuity, as well. The confluence of these factors has contributed to patients experiencing more severe disease, in many cases requiring longer hospitalizations and more intensive treatments.”

Indeed, for millions of Americans and for billions globally, health maintenance was not a priority during the pandemic, given that many feared going to a hospital or even step outside of their own homes. These patients did not have regular check-ups with their primary care physicians (PCPs), let alone re-evaluation of their lifestyles or current medication regimes. For chronically sick patients and geriatric patients, the impact of this is even worse, as these patient populations are extremely sensitive to even small health changes.

Another recent study that examined the impact of Covid-19 on patient volumes, acuity, and outcomes in emergency departments reported congruent findings. The authors describe how during the height of the pandemic, “many countries instituted stay-at-home orders, curfews, and lockdowns in an attempt to contain the virus spread. These interventions may have contributed to the perception that the hospital environment represents a reservoir of infection, which translated to an associated reduction in emergency department (ED) visits.” As a result, “The subsequent altered care-seeking patterns may lead to unnecessary morbidity by delaying access to care for urgent conditions […] the pandemic altered the public’s perception of when ED care should be sought. Although, this does not seem to have led to increased mortality in children, a rare outcome in this population, there seems to be increased morbidity associated with other common diseases…”

Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a generation-defining event that has certainly provided the world with many lessons learned for decades to come. Perhaps the only way to rectify this immediate problem, however, is to continue doing what is best for patient care: providing more awareness as to why seeking timely care is important; funding healthcare organizations and physicians to safely attend to their patients; and ultimately, empowering communities with the resources they need to be able to support the most vulnerable populations.