J Health Care Poor Underserved. 2021;32(1):137-144. doi: 10.1353/hpu.2021.0013.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a precipitous transformation in health care delivery in the nation’s safety-net, primary care system of federally qualified health centers (FQHCs). This study uses electronic health record data to quantify the extent of changes to visit volume in 36 FQHCs across 19 states as well as changes in quality metrics. We found a steep decline in in-person visits in March 2020 accompanied by a sharp increase in telehealth visits; however, combined volume remained 23% below pre-pandemic levels. The implications for public health are significant, as preventive and chronic care deferral could lead to exacerbations of health disparities. Our examination of the impact on quality measures suggests that gaps in care are already emerging. Services that cannot be readily performed virtually are most affected. As FQHC visit numbers recover, concerted efforts are needed to encourage access and re-engage at-risk groups that fell out of care.