The federal government declared an end to the COVID-19 pandemic in early May, but that doesn’t mean health care providers are getting a breather.
New Jerseyans are now coming into hospitals with more severe levels of illnesses than they were in 2019, according to a data analysis released May 24 by the New Jersey Hospital Association.
“There’s no question about it: We’re seeing much sicker patients presenting at our hospitals,” NJHA President and CEO Cathy Bennett said in a statement. “That’s a real worry for the health of our population, and an added burden for hospitals and their care teams in the midst of a severe workforce shortage.”
Health care providers use diagnosis codes called the All-Patient Refined Diagnosis Related Group to chart illness levels, ranging from 1 (mild) to 4 (extreme). According to the data, the proportion of patients with a “major” or “extreme” level of illness is now more than 40% – a 21% jump from 2019 to 2022.
What’s behind the increase? Health care professionals have ventured a theory.
In December 2021, NJHA reported a significant rise in at-home deaths in 2020, coupled with a decline in hospitalizations for serious health events, like heart attacks and strokes. The research suggested the pandemic may have prevented some patients from immediately seeking care, thus exacerbating certain conditions or causing delayed diagnoses.
The recent analysis also found that, in 2019, while Black and white patients were more likely to be hospitalized with major or extreme illnesses compared with other racial and ethnic groups, every data group was experiencing these levels in 2022.
Additionally, the average age of non-COVID patients in hospitals is declining, according to the report, even as the population ages.
“These trends in severity levels – overall and by age and race/ethnicity – among non-COVID-19 patients suggest that the pandemic may have a lasting effect on New Jersey’s patient population case mix in future years,” the report stated.
The analysis concluded that the change in illness severity means that “hospitals will need to adjust to a non-COVID-19 population that is more complex – with potentially more severe illnesses – than pre-COVID-19 years.”
More severe illnesses will lead to longer hospital stays and a greater strain on resources.
This also means that payments from insurers will need to be adjusted “to account for the added expense burden this unanticipated increase in patient severity is creating.”
“New Jersey is moving forward from the pandemic, but it’s important to learn from the experience,” Bennett added. “These are important trendlines to guide strategies to improve the health of our population, and to ensure there are sufficient staff and resources to care for sicker patients.”