Routine patient care received a devastating blow earlier this year as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged healthcare facilities, countless communities across the country and shut down elective procedures.

According to a new study on patient care's impact during the pandemic, almost half of all U.S. employees deferred care because of the pandemic, Willis Towers Watson said.

The global advisory firm surveyed a statistically valid 4,898 workers reporting that as many as 44% deferred medical care at some point during the pandemic. Of these folks, 30% said they canceled an appointment or visit independently, while another 25% said their caregiver canceled an appointment.

Postponed care's adverse effect resulted in suffering or a deterioration of health in as many as 29% of those who deferred care — self-reported numbers not validated by their caregivers. Additionally, 40% of the population who delayed care also reported that they expected to experience adverse health effects because of the care deferral.

The pandemic itself resulting in the pushing aside of care, 61% of those asked said. The pandemic's effect on people's wallets caused 42% of those who deferred care to do so. More than half (53%) with a chronic condition who delayed care said they expect to increase their use of health services when the pandemic ends.

Despite these findings, overall, 15% of the surveyed employees said their physical health had worsened due to the pandemic, while 22% said their physical health improved. The remaining 63% reported no change.

However, more employees did report negative impacts on their mental health, according to the survey. Close to one-third (29%) reported declining mental health, while 18% said their mental health improved during the pandemic.

A separate brief published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Sept. 11 found that, because of concerns about COVID-19, at least 41% of U.S. adults delayed or avoided medical care, including urgent or emergency care (12%) and routine care (32%).

“Avoidance of urgent or emergency care was more prevalent among unpaid caregivers for adults, persons with underlying medical conditions, Black adults, Hispanic adults, young adults, and persons with disabilities,” the CDC said.

The higher prevalence of medical care delay among the nearly 5,000 adults the CDC surveyed showed that those with health insurance versus those without it “might reflect differences in medical care-seeking behaviors.” Pre-COVID, people without insurance understandably sought care at a rate much less than those with insurance coverage.

In a May report by the Commonwealth Fund, visits to ambulatory practices declined nearly 60% from April. Visits are presently rebounding, but the number of visits is dramatically lower than what was seen before the pandemic.

Willis Towers Watson said higher telehealth engagement have been continuous throughout the pandemic. Forty-seven percent said they used virtual health services in 2020, up from 17% saying the same last year. Employees interviewed said their virtual care experiences were positive — 79% said virtual visits are equally as good as in-person visits. Twenty-five percent said virtual visits are better than in-person visits.

Most (78%) of those interviewed said they'd like to employ virtual care in the future.

Julie Stone, managing director, health and benefits for Willis Towers Watson, said: "Employers were quick to expand and educate employees on how to access virtual care, and employees — especially those who were hesitant to access traditional medical care — took advantage of it. While most employees used virtual care for regular screenings and checkups, a significant number were able to utilize it for diagnosis and treatment of a new illness, chronic conditions, and importantly, mental health services."