4 Things to Know About Seeing the Doctor in the Time of COVID-19
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Over the last two years, as the COVID-19 pandemic has waxed and waned, Americans across the country have put off family gatherings, social events and, understandably, doctor’s appointments.
But as it turns out, people may often be better off going in for checkups, despite the threat of the novel coronavirus.
“Delays in healthcare, even if they're for preventive care, could raise the risk of a negative health outcome in the future,” says Pierre Theodore, M.D., Vice President, Therapeutic Area Expert, Thoracic Surgical Oncology for Johnson & Johnson MedTech.
Every person's medical situation is different, as are their COVID risk factors. So it's important to speak with your physician about your treatment needs and concerns so you can arrive at a healthcare maintenance plan together. We sat down with Dr. Theodore to discuss what to consider before heading to the doctor's office or hospital, as well as a new Johnson & Johnson resource designed to help patients and medical providers alike decide how and when to prioritize in-person attention.
Don’t avoid hospitals for fear of contracting COVID-19.
Early on in the pandemic, data shows that emergency room visits declined by more than 30%, including for serious conditions like strokes and heart attacks. Dr. Theodore says that if you have a serious, acute need, don’t wait—it’s important to get treated at a hospital right away.
But what about for ailments that pose less of an emergency?
Know that, in addition to the rise in vaccinations and more well-established safety protocols, many hospitals and other doctor’s offices are mitigating risks for their patients as much as possible.
“Right now, there’s not a clear end to the pandemic in sight,” Dr. Theodore says. “You don’t want to put off needed medical care any longer, especially if you have a chronic condition such as heart or lung disease. Otherwise, you run the risk of ending up with a much bigger health problem because you’ve delayed seeking care.”
This even includes what the medical profession refers to as elective procedures.
“While most people think of these types of surgeries as cosmetic procedures like a face lift, they also include surgeries like mastectomies or hip replacements, which are vital to a person’s well-being,” explains Dr. Theodore.
The same goes for seemingly nonessential appointments such as physical therapy. “If you’re so uncomfortable that it impacts your quality of life, then you should continue with these appointments for both your physical and mental health,” he says.
Telemedicine has its place, but it can’t always replace in-person care.
Virtual healthcare has been around for years, but its popularity skyrocketed during the early days of the pandemic, with the number of visits jumping 154%.
“Patients often prefer telehealth appointments because they are convenient,” Dr. Theodore explains. They can also be very helpful with managing chronic conditions such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes: Many blood pressure monitors and glucose meters, for example, now have technology that allows you to download readings to your computer and email them to your physician’s office.
And with the explosion of wearable technology that can do everything from assess your risk for falls to monitor atrial fibrillation, much of what in the past could only be done in the doctor’s office can also be done at home.
“When a patient is able to provide all this hard data, their home, in a sense, becomes a microclinic,” Dr. Theodore says. “It’s an exciting glimpse into the future of medicine.”
That said, telemedicine may magnify existing health disparities, since older adults and those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum may have trouble accessing its technology, he points out. That's why, through its My Health Can’t Wait campaign, Johnson & Johnson offers resources like telemedicine 101 guides for patients and resources for healthcare professionals for improving equity in telemedicine.
“Telemedicine has its place and can be great,” says Dr. Theodore. “But there are still times when in-person visits are necessary, like for imaging tests and blood work, as well as for diagnoses such as arthritis that require a more hands-on approach. We just have to balance the best ways to use it.”
Health disparities in the U.S. make prioritizing medical care even more important.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light health inequities that have long been a problem in America, and not just in telehealth, says Dr. Theodore. While studies have consistently shown that Black people are at a higher risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 than white people, other research has found that during the pandemic, Black people have suffered greater rates of out-of-hospital sudden death, as well.
Communities of color are also less likely to be comfortable going to the doctor. A survey released earlier this year by the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography & Interventions found that more than 45% of African American and Latino adult respondents were uncomfortable going to the doctor’s office, compared to only 25% of the general population.
That’s one reason why My Health Can’t Wait offers toolkits and educational materials for patients and their healthcare providers to help both groups to assess how to stay safe in medical settings right now and how to weigh the potential pros and cons of forgoing care.
These decisions and discussions are especially crucial for people of color, says Dr. Theodore. “Almost two years into the pandemic, we can really see how forgoing care has impacted those in the marginalized Black and Latino communities.”
Reach out to your providers about your concerns.
If you don’t feel comfortable seeing your doctor in person, Dr. Theodore suggests that you give them a call to find out exactly what they are doing to help keep their patients safe. Questions to ask might include:
· What screening protocols will take place before my arrival?
· Are patients with symptoms of COVID-19 or those who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 allowed to proceed with their in-person appointments?
· What infection-control protocols is your office following?
· How many people are allowed in the waiting room at one time?
· Can I wait inside my vehicle until my healthcare provider is ready to see me?
In general, you can expect to see stripped-down waiting rooms with no reading material and only certain seats designated for patients, says Dr. Theodore. If you need an elective surgery or procedure, look for facilities that require COVID-19 testing for admittance, and even possibly proof of vaccination.
And if you're in a healthcare facility that isn't limiting waiting-room occupancy, requiring masks or checking for COVID-19 symptoms or otherwise makes you feel unsafe? Trust your gut and ask your primary care physician or insurance provider for another option.