Benefits and Compensation

Unexpected Healthcare Utilization Outcomes During a Pandemic (and What They Mean for Employers)

Now that we’re more than 1 year removed from the outbreak of COVID-19, researchers are uncovering what healthcare utilization looks like amid a global pandemic. Did the influx of patients who contracted the virus put a greater burden on the healthcare system, driving up costs? Did the sudden drop in preventive care visits and elective care procedures hurt the healthcare industry? Yes and yes.


According to the Peterson-Kaiser Family Foundation Health System Tracker, health services spending was down roughly 2.7% (seasonally adjusted annual rates) as of December 2020 compared with December 2019. Although this is the first recession in the past five recessions to result in a decrease in health spending growth year over year, the healthcare industry has largely recovered to its pre-COVID numbers.

While these findings are interesting to anyone in health care or a related field, HR professionals can use the unexpected outcomes of healthcare utilization in 2020 to strategically plan for a successful, healthy 2021 (and beyond).

Be Proactive in Recommending Preventive Care

While the numbers aren’t as dramatic as they were in March and April 2020, patients still weren’t seeking preventive services in December 2020 as they were in December 2019, according to the Health Care Cost Institute. For example, colonoscopies were down 90% in April 2020 from April 2019 and, as of November 2020, were still 10%–15% below their normal rate; however, mammograms and prostate screening tests plummeted in early 2020 but rebounded and surpassed 2019 levels by late 2020.

For employers, this means your employees may not be receiving the critical treatment they need because they don’t know that they need it. After more than a year of potentially not receiving any healthcare services, your employees may need some extra encouragement that it’s safe to return to the doctor’s office. Incentivizing preventive care is a great way to get employees back into a wellness mind-set.

Take Advantage of New Ways of Accessing Care

By necessity, people quickly found new ways to receive care. While these alternatives were attractive because of social distancing guidelines and a general desire to avoid hospitals and other provider centers, these alternatives also proved to be more cost-effective for employers.


Telehealth is the most common example of a new healthcare delivery method patients tried during quarantine. In the first weeks of the pandemic, telehealth usage skyrocketed, with 46% of the population using the tool (up from 11% in 2019). With so many people now comfortable and familiar with telehealth, employees will be more likely to use the service—with the added benefit of cost savings for themselves and their employer.

On-Site Health Clinics

For employees who weren’t remote or who preferred to see a new provider at a convenient location, on-site health clinics also grew in popularity. Rather than travel to another location—one that’s likely larger and thus a greater risk for exposure—employees can safely and easily access care through their employer.

Although many on-site clinics initially operated in a limited capacity in the first weeks of the pandemic, larger employers have plans to expand their on-site clinics. Currently, 72% either have a clinic in place or will by 2023. Of these, 34% offer primary care services, and an additional 26% plan to by 2023. If possible, it might be worth considering for long-term cost savings.

Mental and Behavioral Health Care

The massive changes we experienced in the past year took a toll on our collective mental health. While mental health care is not new, its importance came to the forefront in 2020. Some insurers recognized this by allowing patients to access telehealth therapy services for free for several months. Even before COVID, many people were trying telehealth for the first time by connecting with therapists and other mental health professionals. Support for mental health care from institutions—such as insurance providers and employers—made it easier for employees to access the care they needed and ultimately improved employee productivity.

Show Employees How to Access Quality, Cost-Effective Care

There are many strategies employers can use to encourage their teams to utilize their benefits wisely and maintain good overall health.

  • Offer incentives for seeking preventive care and mental health care.
  • Promote the use of the on-site health clinic, if available.
  • Encourage employees to use telehealth where possible.
  • Select a plan that includes high-value providers, e.g., providers that offer bundled care or highly rated, affordable providers.

After a year of uncertainty, we’re finding that patients have almost returned to pre-COVID healthcare utilization rates, but some still need encouragement to seek the care they need. Employers can use the new experiences employees have had with health care in the past year to encourage new ways to seek health care—ways that benefit both the employee and the employer.

As President of Health Payment Systems, Terry Rowinski’s focus is providing compassionate, consistent, relatable leadership that engages, inspires, and encourages growth within all levels of the organization. His people-centric approach consistently yields positive bottom-line results by influencing hard-to-control costs such as turnover, productivity and waste.