Study objective: We describe how the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic affected the economics of emergency department care (ED). Methods: We conducted an observational study of 136 EDs from January 2019 to September 2020, using 2020-to-2019 3-week moving ratios for ED visits, complexity, revenue, and staffing expenses. We tabulated 2020-to-2019 staffing ratios and calculated hour and full-time-equivalent changes. Results: Following the COVID-19 pandemic's onset, geriatric (age ≥65), adult (age 18 to 64), and pediatric (age <18) ED visits declined by 43%, 40%, and 73%, respectively, compared to 2019 visits and rose thereafter but remained below 2019 levels through September. Relative value units per visit rose by 8%, 9%, and 18%, respectively, compared to 2019, while ED admission rates rose by 32%. Both fell subsequently but remained above 2019 levels through September. Revenues dropped sharply early in the pandemic and rose gradually but remained below 2019 levels. In medium and large EDs, staffing and expenses were lowered with a lag, largely compensating for lower revenue at these sites, and barely at freestanding EDs. Staffing and expense reductions could not match revenue losses in smaller EDs. During the pandemic, emergency physician and advanced practice provider clinical hours and compensation fell 15% and 27%, respectively, corresponding to 174 lost physician and 193 lost advanced practice provider full-time-equivalent positions. Conclusion: The COVID-19 pandemic adversely impacted the economics of ED care, with large drops in overall and, in particular, low-acuity ED visits, necessitating reductions in clinical hours. Staffing cutbacks could not match reduced revenue at small EDs with minimum emergency physician coverage requirements.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Emergency Medicine