A new study from the University of Eastern Finland indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has seriously affected the use of health services among patients with type 2 diabetes in North Karelia, Finland, but essential care has been provided continuously. The delivery of many essential services was facilitated by processes that relied heavily on telemedicine already before the pandemic.
The COVID-19 outbreak has tested health systems and their ability to deliver essential health services. While social distancing measures avoided spreading the virus, they conflicted with proper diabetes management, which requires regular follow-up visits to manage the disease and its complications.
In Finland, the government imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 16, which lasted until mid-May 2020. This study used electronic health records to compare healthcare utilization in the Karelia region from the North at three different periods in 2020 – before, during and after confinement – with the equivalent period in 2019.
In 2020, patients with type 2 diabetes requested significantly fewer primary health care services related to diabetes and dental health than the year before the pandemic, with the largest reduction occurring during the lockdown period. . Specialist care ER visits also dropped significantly during the lockdown period, but quickly recovered during the post-lockdown period, reaching the same volume as in 2019.
“The global pandemic has highlighted an urgent need for digital health solutions”
The high proportion of patients using remote services for diabetes management has cushioned the drastic drop in face-to-face appointments – also among patients aged 70 or over. The proportion of remote consultations among all diabetes-related contacts increased from 56% before the pandemic to 88% during the lockdown period in 2020. As a result, overall contacts decreased by only 9% in 2020 compared to to 2019, while appointments have been halved.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital health solutions. In Finland, patients have been able to receive new prescriptions, referrals for examinations, medical opinions, self-care instructions and lifestyle advice to remotely monitor and control long-term illnesses already since some time. It was a great asset during the pandemic.”
Laura Inglin, Early Career Researcher, University of Eastern Finland
“Another strength of Finnish healthcare are high-quality electronic health records, which provide structured and up-to-date patient information at the point of care. Using routine care data for research helps to make advance our collective knowledge of the health system response to pandemics for future preparedness,” Inglin points out.
Inglin, L. et al. (2022) The adverse effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on health service utilization among patients with type 2 diabetes in North Karelia, Finland. BMC Health Services Research. doi.org/10.1186/s12913-022-08105-z.