The COVID-19 pandemic has left no healthcare system untouched. In New South Wales (NSW), the most populous state in Australia, COVID-19 case numbers have to date been relatively low. However, that does not mean the state’s healthcare system has been unaffected. Preparations to create sufficient capacity to accommodate a COVID-19 surge resulted in widespread deferment of scheduled medical procedures and appointments. Patterns of healthcare-seeking behaviour changed, with a reluctance to visit healthcare settings.
The aim of this study was to quantify the changes in activity seen in the NSW health system in the first half of 2020.
Healthcare data were drawn from multiple sources, including primary care, ambulance, emergency departments and inpatient settings. Volumes of healthcare activity in 2020, overall, by urgency of cases and by reasons for care were compared with the figures for the same period in 2019. Changes in the modality of care provision were also examined.
The findings show that in March to June 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, primary care face-to-face consultations decreased by 22.1%, breast screening activity by 51.5%, ambulance incidents by 7.2%, emergency department visits by 13.9%, public hospital inpatient episodes by 14.3%, and public hospital planned surgical activity by 32.6%.
There were substantial declines in a wide range of healthcare activities across the NSW health system between March and June 2020 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although activity levels were recovering by September 2020, they had not yet returned to ‘normal’. The implications of these changes – and the indirect impact of COVID-19 – require further study.