Objectives: To determine the extent and nature of changes in utilisation of healthcare services during COVID-19 pandemic.
Design: Systematic review.
Eligibility: Eligible studies compared utilisation of services during COVID-19 pandemic to at least one comparable period in prior years. Services included visits, admissions, diagnostics, and therapeutics. Studies were excluded if from single-centres or studied only COVID-19 patients.
Data sources PubMed, Embase, Cochrane COVID-19 Study Register, and pre-prints were searched, without language restrictions, until August 10, using detailed searches with key concepts including COVID-19, health services and impact.
Data analysis Risk of bias was assessed by adapting ROBINS-I and Cochrane Effective Practice and Organization of Care tool. Results were analysed using descriptive statistics, graphical figures, and narrative synthesis.
Outcome measures Primary outcome was change in service utilisation between pre-pandemic and pandemic periods. Secondary outcome was the change in proportions of users of healthcare services with milder or more severe illness (e.g. triage scores).
Results: 3097 unique references were identified, and 81 studies across 20 countries included, reporting on >11 million services pre-pandemic and 6.9 million during pandemic. For the primary outcome, there were 143 estimates of changes, with a median 37% reduction in services overall (interquartile range −51% to −20%), comprising median reductions for visits of 42%(−53% to −32%), admissions, 28%(−40% to −17%), diagnostics, 31%(−53% to −24%), and for therapeutics, 30%(−57% to −19%). Among 35 studies reporting secondary outcomes, there were 60 estimates, with 27(45%) reporting larger reductions in utilisation among people with a milder spectrum of illness, and 33 (55%) reporting no change.
Conclusions: Healthcare utilisation decreased by about a third during the pandemic, with considerable variation, and with greater reductions among people with less severe illness. While addressing unmet need remains a priority, studies of health impacts of reductions may help health-systems prioritise higher-value care in the post-pandemic recovery.