Hospital and ICU Patient Volume per Physician at Peak of COVID Pandemic: State-Level Estimates

Abstract [from journal]

Background: In anticipation of patient surge due to COVID-19, many states are working to increase the available healthcare workforce. To help inform state policies and initiatives aimed at physician deployment during COVID-19, we used predictions of peak patient volume for hospitals and intensive care units (ICU) and regional physician workforce estimates to measure patient to physician ratios at the peak of the pandemic for each state.

Methods: We estimated the number of potentially available physicians based on Medicare Part B billings for the care of hospitalized and critically ill patients in 2017, adjusted for attrition due to exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and relevant experience. We used estimates from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation to determine the number of hospitalized and ICU patients expected at the peak of the pandemic in each state. We then determined the expected ratio of patients per physician for each state at the peak of the pandemic.

Results: The median number of hospitalized patients per physician was 13 (low estimate) to 18 (high estimate). At the high estimate of hospitalized patients, 35 states would have a patient to physician ratio of more than 15:1 (patient to physician ratios above 15:1 have been associated with poor outcomes). For ICU patients, the median number of patients each physician would treat across states would be 8–11 patients. Nine states would experience patient to physician ratios above 15:1 at the higher end of estimates. Patient-physician ratios decreased if the available physician pool was broadened to include physicians without recent experience treating hospitalized patients, and physicians in surgical specialties with experience treating acutely hospitalized patients.

Conclusions/implications: We estimate that most states will have sufficient physician capacity to manage hospitalized patients at the peak of the pandemic. However, at the high estimates of hospitalized patients, some Midwestern states will experience high patient to provider ratios that may adversely affect patient outcomes.