Above: Don’t let the coronavirus pandemic keep you from getting regular check-ups. Photo by Creators Collective on Unsplash.

The threat of COVID-19 appears to be changing how many people think about going to the doctor or the dentist. Patients, healthcare practitioners and experts alike say the coronavirus and strategies to avoid it are changing the ways people seek healthcare.

Riki Bolster

“I saw lots of [personal protective equipment], individuals at the entrance to each hallway asking questions, checking your temp, giving you a sticker to say where you were going,” Bolster said. “Everybody wore masks — all staff, doctors, patients. I think they were spacing time between patients, as I did have to wait longer than usual,” said Bolster.

And the chairs in the waiting area “were cordoned off so no one would sit too close to the next person. All the protective COVID-19 protocol made me feel safer.”

But as they make changes to accommodate their patients’ safety, some hospitals and doctors have expressed concerns that fear of “catching” the coronavirus has patients foregoing treatment for some small problems — from ingrown toenails to sore throats — that could cause them future difficulties.

A recent study by the Prevent Cancer Foundation found that 43% of American adults had missed routine medical appointments because of COVID-19.

“The survey shows that, in the wake of the pandemic, people are afraid to go to their doctors. Understandably, there is a lot of fear about exposure to the virus. What we need everyone to know is that missing appointments puts you at much higher risk for serious health issues, such as cancer,” Carolyn “Bo” Aldigé, founder and CEO of the Foundation said in a press release. “Americans should get medical appointments back on the books and schedule their physicals and routine cancer screenings.”

Here’s a look at other areas and other ways the coronavirus is changing reactions to healthcare, at least in the short run.

From the Medical Office Manager’s Perspective

Chris Jueschke, office manager of at Peachtree-Dunwoody Medical Associates in Sandy Springs, said strategies about dealing with the virus have varied and have changed over time.

“We saw a wide range of preferences among patients, and did our best to meet everyone’s personal needs,” he wrote in an email. “In mid-March we saw a lot of patients postpone their appointments due to concern about exposure to COVID-19, but we also had many patients who still chose to come into the office. By the end of March, we provided services exclusively via telemedicine. This was for the protection of both patients and our staff.”

Preventive visits, such as wellness visits and routine checkups, were initially all postponed, he said, but “we resumed seeing patients in the office on a limited basis in May, and by June were back on a full schedule. We continue to see some patients postponing visits, but demand keeps us pretty well-booked. For those patients who come in, masks are mandatory, and hand sanitizer is always within reach.”

A Dental Office’s Perspective

Many dental practices nationwide closed during the early spread of COVID-19. Dentists, oral surgeons, orthodontists, and others in the field were forced to take an unscheduled hiatus, only dealing with rare emergency situations.

Dr. Jeremy Rosenberg

The American Dental Association created an advisory group to help dental practices recover from the closings, association president, Dr. Chad P. Gehani said. “Our community is in it together as we navigate these trying times,” Gehani said to his membership.

Peachtree Dunwoody Dental Group in Sandy Springs was one of the practices that did not shut down completely during the early days of the pandemic.

“We remained open to handle emergency procedures at first,” Dr. Jeremy Rosenberg said. “Most dentists closed completely. However, we stayed open to see emergencies, but kept very limited staff. It was just myself, my assistant and one person up front,” he said. “We actually stayed pretty busy just because people had infections, or a broken tooth requiring an immediate extraction, while others required root canals.”

His office, Rosenberg said, always uses “universal precautions so we were set here.” And staying open paid off in the long run. “Because we kept in contact with patients, and saw some with emergencies, it was a little easier for us to get back into a full dental flow,” he said. “Some dentists closed for two months, and I think it was much harder for them to reopen.” 

What about Emergency Room visits?

In the weeks following the declaration of COVID-19 as a national emergency, substantial reductions in emergency department visits made the news.

On June 26, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) noted three potentially life-threatening conditions where ED visits were down by all age groups, and across genders.

Source: CDC/MMWR, June 26, 2020 /69(25);795-800

In a New York Times report, it’s suggested that patients “may be coming in later and sicker.” Perhaps patients stayed home longer before they came in with worsening conditions, suggested one physician.

The implication for public health practice is to educate the public about the importance of immediate emergency care, regardless of a pandemic. People need to know that if they are experiencing chest pain, loss of motor function, altered mental status, or other life- threatening issues, they should seek care right away.

What happened to elective surgeries?

As part of a special “CovidSurg Collaborative,” a survey was done of 1,000 surgical leaders across the country to assess the surgery outcomes for patients who were diagnosed with COVID-19. The survey included academic medical centers, hospitals and surgery centers (identified by general surgery) and included certain specialties (such as orthopedics and urology).

More than half of the respondents said up to 40% of their patients had canceled their elective procedures. “As [surgical centers] start the process of reopening, it’s critical that we also strive for equitable access to surgical care across the communities we serve,” stated one professor (who partnered with the CovidSurg Collaborative).

What should you do?

There is still much to learn about this unprecedented virus. At the time of this writing, we don’t know how far it already has penetrated into society and we still don’t know how to completely prevent its transmission.

From patients to multiple medical practices, the public is experimenting on how to adjust COVID-19 into our lives. And as medical offices reopen, now may be a good time for patient protection against the unseen health hazards affecting our communities.

The take-home message is: Don’t wait.

For starters, if you, or someone you care for, is feeling sick, experiencing a fever, or showing signs of difficulty breathing, call your primary care physician right away for further directions. However, if your upcoming appointment can be handled virtually, that may be another option for you, depending on the medical practice.

Stay vigilant with self-care and continue to follow COVID-19 guidelines when you are seeing your healthcare provider — even if it’s for bloodwork, X-rays or other tests.

The good news: medical practices are safer than they’ve ever been.

Judi Kanne

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.