July data shows some volume gains for providers since June; however, analysts say current predictions depends on progress of the COVID-19 pandemic
Clinical laboratory managers preparing strategic plans for 2020 and 2021 face a basic and key question: when and if they can expect patient volumes and associated lab test referrals to return to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels.
Some insights into how to answer that question can be found in two separate reports. Separately, healthcare analysts from Advisory Board and Kaufman Hall explored possible COVID-19 case scenarios and implications for providers’ volumes and operating margins for the remaining months of 2020.
The Advisory Board analysts do not see a snap back to pre-pandemic volume levels happening this year. However, they do envision a gradual volume increase that has already started, they reported in “Projecting Volume Recovery through 2020.”
Patient Volumes Depend on COVID-19 Cases
With 200 experts and more than 4,500 member organizations, the Advisory Board, according to its website, “helps leaders and future leaders in the healthcare industry work smarter and faster by providing provocative insights, actionable strategies, and practical tools to support execution.”In a Radio Advisory broadcast concerning volume outlook for 2020, Anna Yakovenko, Advisory Board Practice Manager, said there are two likely scenarios for patient volumes, each based on COVID-19 having:
- An overall plateau of cases;
- A potential of a second wave in advance of influenza season.
What If There’s a Second Wave of COVID-19?
The Advisory Board predicts that, even if a COVID-19 second wave occurs earlier than the traditional mid-autumn influenza outbreak, a gradual recovery for providers will still happen. “But then we think we’ll see a dip in volumes—not remotely the level of dip that we saw in March and April—but a dip nonetheless,” Yakovenko said.
In a blog post, Yakovenko cited a Moody’s Investors Service report showing healthcare systems with more patient encounters in May. She wrote that providers need to overcome three pandemic-related issues to get volumes back on track in 2020:
- Patients cancelling care because they are anxious;
- Loss of jobs and insurance coverage resulting in decreased care demand;
- Need for safety precautions, which could result in lower efficiency.
Kaufman Hall Report: Margins Could Go as Low as -11% in Q4 2020
The second report looked at hospital finances and patient volumes. It was done by Kaufman Hall, a Chicago firm providing management consulting services and software. The analysis by Kaufman Hall, released by the American Hospital Association (AHA) titled, “The Effect of COVID-19 on Hospital Financial Health,” predicted median hospital operating margin of -3% in the second quarter (Q2) of 2020, and a possible year-end range of -1% and -11% due to COVID-19. The report noted that—even before COVID-19—hospitals had a modest median margin (money made from operations) of 3.5%.
An AHA news release describes two COVID-19 case scenarios that could affect providers’ margins:
- A steady decrease in cases could see median margin of -1% by the fourth quarter of 2020.
- A case surge may result in margins of -11%.
Signs of Improvement in July 2020 Data
A Kaufman Hall National Hospital Flash Report in August showed hospital margins had plummeted and were down 96% since the start of the year, as compared to the first seven months of 2019. And even with federal funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, operating margins were down 28% January to July, compared to 2019, a news release stated.
However, Kaufman Hall’s analysts spotted signs of recovery that were evidenced in data for June to July, when operating margins improved 24% due to pent-up demand for patient services, Healthcare Dive reported.
Their analysis also showed that providers in July had boosts in discharges and surgeries due to resumption of elective procedures. Other data for the seven months ending July 31, and for the month-to-month period June to July, showed:
- Operating margins fell 5% year-over-year, but rose 12% month-over-month.
- Discharges were down 7% year-over-year, but up 6% month-over-month.
- Emergency Department visits fell 17% compared to first seven months in 2019 and were up 10% month-over-month.
- Operating Room minutes were down 15% year-to-date and up 3% month-over-month.
- Inpatient and outpatient revenues (without CARES funding) are down 5% and 11%, respectively, year-to-date. Inpatient and outpatient revenues June to July increased 6% and 5%, respectively.
“Hospitals saw flat year-over-year gross operating revenue performance, continued high-per-patient expenses, and a fifth consecutive month of volumes falling below 2019 performance and below budget across most metrics. Emergency Department volumes have been hardest hit. Even, so July volumes continued to show some signs of recovery month-over-month,” the Kaufman Hall analysts wrote.
One Provider’s Financial Tale
Allina Health System in Minneapolis, Minn., experienced financial struggles but is reportedly experiencing the type of turnaround the Advisory Board and Kaufman Hall analysts predicted. Allina had an $85 million operating loss in Q2 2020, compared to $14.4 million loss in Q2 2019. But it had positive income for June, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.
Clearly, the researchers studying patient volumes recognize that it is possible for patient volumes to return to pre-pandemic levels. However, a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases would obviously discourage patients from returning to get routine care and schedule elective procedures with their local hospitals. In turn, that would restrict the volume of clinical laboratory test referrals flowing into the nation’s medical laboratories.
Pathologists and medical laboratory managers should take into account these expert predictions and the supporting data in these two research reports as they plan staffing schedules and consider major purchasing of instruments and test supplies.
—Donna Marie Pocius