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3 ways the pandemic has impacted health care

What they mean for you

This article was last updated on May 10, 2023. 

When COVID-19 reached the United States in 2020, many of us didn’t realize how big of an impact it would have on our everyday lives. Not only did schools and childcare centers close, but millions of workers were also laid off or furloughed, the economy struggled, supply chains were upended, and, ultimately, more than 600,000 Americans (and counting) died from COVID-19.

What isn’t often talked about, however, is how the pandemic continues to impact health care and the full effects are likely to be felt for years to come. Here’s what you should know.

  1. People stopped going to the doctor

    With COVID-19 spreading rapidly and stay-at-home recommendations in place during much of 2020, many people put off non-essential medical care like annual exams, treatment for mental health conditions External Site, preventive care screenings, immunizations, and more. Telemedicine services like Doctor On Demand® External Site rose significantly throughout the pandemic, which helped people receive limited care without stepping foot inside a doctor’s office. However, it didn’t completely cover the gap left from cancelled in-person appointments.

    Data from electronic health records by Epic Health Research Network External Site shows that average weekly screenings for breast, colorectal, and cervical cancers dropped 94 percent, 86 percent and 94 percent, respectively, between January and April 2020. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the use of preventive services among women between June and September 2020 remained between 24 and 29 percent below 2019 levels for different age groups.

    In addition to a downward trend in cancer screenings and other preventive services, similar patterns were found External Site for other serious and chronic diseases. Ultimately, missing a few visits during the pandemic may not seem important — but avoiding preventive care and important vaccines could lead to more serious diagnoses, long-term, negative health impacts, and an increase in community protection for illnesses like measles, whooping cough and polio down the road.

    Check-in: When was the last time you saw your doctor?

    Make sure you have preventive care appointments scheduled for the whole family, especially if it has been more than a year since your last preventive exam. Need to find an in-network provider to handle your primary care? Just log in to myWellmark® Opens New Window to get started.

  2. Many lost health insurance coverage

    Between February and April 2020, the unemployment rate in the United States External Site rose from 3.5 to nearly 15 percent — the highest rate recorded since 1948. Because the majority of working adults External Site in the United States receive health insurance coverage through their employer, experts predicted that a staggering number of people External Site would lose access to their health insurance.

    Reports from the Commonwealth Fund External Site and the Urban Institute External Site concluded that nearly 22 million workers and their dependents lost coverage between February and December 2020 — in addition to the already 31 million uninsured Opens PDF and more than 40 million estimated to be underinsured External Site before the pandemic. Thankfully, about 42 percent of private-sector companies that accounted for a majority of pre-pandemic employment continued to pay a portion of insurance premiums for laid-off or furloughed workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics External Site.

  3. Rural hospitals and clinics struggled more than ever before

    To help care for the sudden flood of sick patients and reduce the spread of COVID-19, many hospitals and outpatient clinics postponed non-emergent or elective surgeries and procedures in 2020. While larger hospital systems were mostly able to withstand the sudden loss of revenue, smaller hospitals and clinics — many of which were already struggling — were hit the hardest.

    According to the Chartis Center for Rural Health Opens PDF, as of 2021, 135 rural hospitals have closed in the last decade and another 453 were at risk for closing their doors — mostly due to financial setbacks. Bill Menner, executive director of the Iowa Rural Health Association, stated in a 2022 article published by Iowa Public Radio that 20 percent of Iowa's 89 rural hospitals External Site were at risk for closure before the pandemic began and it's likely higher now. Though some pandemic-related financial struggles were offset by state and federal emergency funds, it may not be enough for these hospitals to stay afloat much longer. It’s a similar story in South Dakota, according to the Argus Leader External Site, where 38 critical-access hospitals External Site in the state took a financial hit from the pandemic.

    When a rural hospital closes, it creates a large gap in access to care for the local community — particularly for patient services like obstetrics (OB) and chemotherapy — forcing people to travel at least 30 minutes (but often much longer) to get care. In major medical emergencies, rural residents may have to drive hundreds of miles or pay for an ambulance ride to get the lifesaving care they need.

    Check-in: Do you know where to get care?

    If you live in a smaller community or rural area, it’s important now more than ever to know the best place to get care. You can search for nearby doctors and facilities using myWellmark, and follow these loose guidelines on where to go to save time (and potentially money) on care:

    • Pharmacy: For pain relief for minor burns, scrapes and other minor injuries, you can quickly get over-the-counter ointments, bandages and other first-aid supplies at your local pharmacy
    • BeWell 24/7SM: If you have any questions about symptoms or where to go for care, the people at BeWell 24/7 can evaluate your symptoms, answer your questions, and recommend the best place to go for care
    • Primary care provider (PCP): For preventive care and other visits where you want someone who knows you and your medical history
    • Virtual doctor: Most Wellmark members have access to Doctor On Demand, a virtual visit service that can treat most common medical conditions External Site, prescribe medication, and even help with regular wellness visits
    • Walk-in clinic: If you need to be seen immediately or if your doctor’s office isn’t open
    • Emergency room: For life-threatening conditions or when you feel like a delay in care could negatively affect your health

Stay in the know

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic upended just about everything you can think of. What has remained constant, however, is Wellmark’s support of its members. Wellmark members can learn more about the resources available to get more from your health insurance plan here Opens New Window