Missed Vaccines, Skipped Colonoscopies: Preventive Care Plummets

The Four Percent

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Americans vastly scaled back their preventive health care, and there is little sign that this deferred care will be made up.

Vaccinations dropped by nearly 60 percent in April, and almost no one was getting a colonoscopy, according to new data from the nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute.

The data, drawn from millions of health insurance claims, shows a consistent pattern, whether it was prostate screenings or contraceptives: Preventive care declined drastically this spring and, as of late June, had not yet recovered to normal levels. Many types of such care were still down by a third at the start of this summer, the most recent data available shows, as Americans remained wary of visiting hospitals and medical offices.

“The thing that jumped out at me was how similar all the patterns were,” said Niall Brennan, the institute’s president. “The bottom was deeper for some services than others, but the slope of the lines was pretty similar no matter what service you picked.”

Americans continued seeking care they couldn’t avoid — hospital admissions for childbirth, for example, held steady — but avoided care they could put off. More invasive preventive procedures, such as mammograms and colonoscopies, showed the greatest decline.

Colonoscopies, which are generally used to screen for colon cancer, declined by 88 percent in mid-April and were still 33 percent lower than normal at the end of June. Mammograms, which fell 77 percent at the height of the pandemic, are still down 23 percent.

The numbers could change slightly as insurers continue to process health providers’ claims. A small time lag probably explains why the data currently shows births declining in June. As more data becomes available, preventive services may show stronger recent increases.

The data shows how the pandemic has rippled outward from the intensive care units that have cared for coronavirus patients to primary care doctors and pediatricians, who have seen their practices upended by patients’ reduced demand.

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