In this retrospective observational study, we evaluated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in London on paediatric radiology activity, as a surrogate of overall hospital activity. We showed a large reduction in overall outpatient imaging activity: 49 250 records occurred in the 371 days post COVID-19 period compared with an expected 67 806 records pre COVID-19 period, representing 18 556 ‘missed’ records. Governmental restrictions were associated with reductions in activity, with the largest reduction in activity during tiers 3 and 4 restrictions. Rescheduling such missed outpatients’ appointments represents considerable resource planning and the associated clinical impact on paediatric healthcare remains to be determined.
- health services research
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The COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with significant changes in global and national health services provision, including through the impact of national lockdowns.1 Children are typically not directly severely affected by COVID-19 infection but may suffer as a result of missing standard healthcare.2 Several children’s hospitals have seen a decrease in attendances for routine outpatient activity, some of which have been displaced online through virtual clinic appointments.3 The Royal College of Paediatric and Child Health4 found that approximately half of National Health Service trusts reported a decrease in their inpatient paediatric activity and loss of paediatric outpatient capacity was reported by 65%–84% of hospital trusts.
In this retrospective single-centre study, we used radiology activity as a surrogate for patient hospital attendance, as several core imaging activities (eg, ultrasound) cannot be performed virtually. We analysed data on radiology attendance from all children over a 22-month study period (13 May 2019–28 March 2021) using our hospital’s secure Digital Research Environment (www.goshdrive.com). We categorised data into pre-COVID and post-COVID (after and including Monday 23 March 2020, the start of the first national lockdown) and according to the UK government’s official lockdown tiers 0–4. We included all X-ray, fluoroscopy, ultrasound and echocardiography, CT scan, MRI, interventional radiology and nuclear medicine imaging studies. Negative binomial models were fitted to inpatient and outpatient daily records with covariates including pre/post COVID-19 covariates (binary), tiering system (tiers 0–4) and weekdays/holidays (binary).
Across the entire study period, 1 62 135 patients were recorded generating a total of 1 91 949 records, across 686 days (98 weeks), of which 315 (45.9%) and 371 (54.1%) days were ‘pre-COVID-19’ and ‘post-COVID-19’ respectively. Figure 1 shows these trends for daily records aggregated by week to smooth out reductions on weekends and holidays. The initial reduction in records was more pronounced for the first lockdown than for the second one despite the latter being confounded by the Christmas period. A total of 49 250 records occurred in the 371 days post COVID-19 timeframe compared with an expected 67 806 records pre COVID-19 timeframe, representing 18 556 ‘missed’ records. Expected weekday daily outpatient records reduced to 187.3 (95% CI 177.8 to 197.3) post COVID-19 from 257.6 (95% CI 243.5 to 272.4) pre COVID-19 (table 1), a reduction of 27.3% (95% CI 21.5 to 32.6). A significant reduction is shown particularly under tiers 3 (151.5, 95% CI 120.2 to 190.9) and 4 (154.8, 95% CI 143.6 to 169.9) government restrictions; these represent reductions of 41.2% (95% CI 24.8 to 53.3) and 39.9% (95% CI 34.1 to 45.2), respectively. Inpatient activity remained consistent with pre COVID-19 levels, with 46 127 records post COVID-19 versus 45 546 expected records assuming pre COVID-19 activity levels. There was a non-significant effect of full lockdown restrictions in weekday inpatient activity, with 157.0 (95% CI 153.6 to 160.5) pre COVID-19 daily records and 152.2 (95% CI 147.7 to 157.0) daily records under tier 4 restrictions (table 1).
We have demonstrated that the COVID-19 period was associated with a reduction in radiological outpatient activity. Several factors could be responsible, including parental anxiety related to travelling during a lockdown, perceived wellness in their children, a possible increase in mental health issues or difficulty coping with routine tasks.5 Assuming a 10% increase in working activity above normal pre COVID-19 levels, 720 weekdays (2.75 years) would be required to catch-up on all outpatient activity. This is not necessarily desirable, as there may have been inefficiencies in existing referral patterns and we did not evaluate the urgency of individual examinations, but further analysis of this data will identify which activities should be prioritised or postponed. The main limitation of this study was its retrospective nature from a single-specialist children’s centre, which may not be generalisable. We did not collect data on staffing levels or on parental experience directly, and so the detailed mechanisms through which hospital activity reduced remain undetermined. Equally, the effect on paediatric healthcare caused by these missed appointments is yet to be quantified.
Ethical approval for this study was granted as part of a larger approval for use of routinely collected non-identifiable data (REC approval: 17/LO/0008).
Contributors DL was responsible for the content and acts as a guarantor. NJS, OA and AT contributed equally to the initial conception and design of the work. DL and MC-B contributed to the analysis and interpretation of data. SS, OA and NJS contributed to the literature search and put findings in the context of existing evidence. JB and WAB provided the dataset available via the Digital Research Environment platform. DL, SS, NJS, OA and MC-B contributed to writing the initial draft of the manuscript, with all other authors contributing to the final version. OA and MC-B contributed as last authors.
Funding This research was supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) Biomedical Research Centre. This article presents independent research funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) (Grant Ref: MR/R00218/1), The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) and NIHR (NIHR-CS-012–002). The GOSH Digital Research Environment is part funded by the GOSH Children’s Charity. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the National Health Service, the NIHR or the UK Department of Health.
Disclaimer The funding bodies were neither involved in study design, data collection, analysis and interpretation nor in the decision to submit the manuscript for publication.
Competing interests None declared.
Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.