Use and Content of Primary Care Office-Based vs Telemedicine Care Visits During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US
G. Caleb Alexander
Dima M. Qato
Randall S. Stafford
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Importance Little is known about the association between the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the level and content of primary care delivery in the US. Objective To quantify national changes in the volume, type, and content of primary care delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with regard to office-based vs telemedicine encounters. Design, Setting, and Participants Analysis of serial cross-sectional data from the IQVIA National Disease and Therapeutic Index, a 2-stage, stratified nationally representative audit of outpatient care in the US from the first calendar quarter (Q1) of 2018 to the second calendar quarter (Q2) of 2020. Main Outcomes and Measures Visit type (office-based or telemedicine), overall and stratified by patient population and geographic region; assessment of blood pressure or cholesterol measurement; and initiation or continuation of prescription medications. Results In the 8 calendar quarters between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2019, between 122.4 million (95% CI, 117.3-127.5 million) and 130.3 million (95% CI, 124.7-135.9 million) quarterly primary care visits occurred in the US (mean, 125.8 million; 95% CI, 121.7-129.9 million), most of which were office-based (92.9%). In 2020, the total number of encounters decreased to 117.9 million (95% CI, 112.6-123.2 million) in Q1 and 99.3 million (95% CI, 94.9-103.8 million) in Q2, a decrease of 21.4% (27.0 million visits) from the average of Q2 levels during 2018 and 2019. Office-based visits decreased 50.2% (59.1 million visits) in Q2 of 2020 compared with Q2 2018-2019, while telemedicine visits increased from 1.1% of total Q2 2018-2019 visits (1.4 million quarterly visits) to 4.1% in Q1 of 2020 (4.8 million visits) and 35.3% in Q2 of 2020 (35.0 million visits). Decreases occurred in blood pressure level assessment (50.1% decrease, 44.4 million visits) and cholesterol level assessment (36.9% decrease, 10.2 million visits) in Q2 of 2020 compared with Q2 2018-2019 levels, and assessment was less common during telemedicine than during office-based visits (9.6% vs 69.7% for blood pressure; P < .001; 13.5% vs 21.6% for cholesterol; P < .001). New medication visits in Q2 of 2020 decreased by 26.0% (14.1 million visits) from Q2 2018-2019 levels. Telemedicine adoption occurred at similar rates among White individuals and Black individuals (19.3% vs 20.5% of patient visits, respectively, in Q1/Q2 of 2020), varied by region (low of 15.1% of visits [East North Central region], high of 26.8% of visits [Pacific region]), and was not correlated with regional COVID-19 burden. Conclusions and Relevance The COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with changes in the structure of primary care delivery, with the content of telemedicine visits differing from that of office-based encounters.