Is It Really Safe to Go to the Doctor During a Pandemic? Listen to What This M.D. Has to Say
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uring the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans across the country sheltered at home, putting off visits to friends’ houses, the local coffee shop and the hair salon.
They also put off crucial visits to the doctor’s office, medical centers and even emergency rooms. In fact, in a recent Harris poll of more than 2,000 American adults conducted for the Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies (JJMDC), 68% of those surveyed said that they or someone in their household have delayed healthcare during the pandemic.
While it may have felt like the safest option at the time, experts fear that this delay in preventive healthcare may lead patients to experience negative health outcomes in the future.
The key to overcoming fears and helping patients feel comfortable about returning to healthcare facilities? Clear communication from their doctors, including up-to-date info about hospital and office sanitization procedures and testing policies.
Nearly 20% of people from a JJMD internal patient tracker data analysis said they were more likely to go forward with surgery or a medical procedure if they received a personal call from their physician, and those who did not receive any information were 40% more likely to delay care during the pandemic.
To help facilitate that all-important line of communication between doctor and patient, JJMDC created My Health Can’t Wait—an educational initiative and resource hub with tools for both patients and healthcare professionals to engage in meaningful conversations about how and when to prioritize needed care. Resources include discussion guides, FAQs, telehealth 101 info, patient stories and more.
We spoke to Cedric “Jamie” Rutland, M.D.—a triple board-certified physician in Internal Medicine, Pulmonology and Critical Care in Southern California, spokesperson for the American Lung Association and Co-Founder and Vice President the Association of Healthcare Social Media—about the top things everyone should know and ask before they schedule their next healthcare visit.
Why is it so important to take care of medical appointments and procedures now instead of delaying them until the pandemic is over?
Dr. Jamie Rutland: If you don’t take care of chronic medical problems serious situations can happen. We’re seeing people in the intensive care unit with complications we haven't seen in years—normally the doctor would catch these things much earlier, before they develop.
For example, if someone has a heart condition, they would normally call their doctor saying they have chest pain, and we could diagnose the problem before it gets too serious. But now, some people are feeling pain and saying, “Oh, it's probably nothing. I don't need to see the doctor.” When it could be something serious!
If you’re waiting months to get something handled, whether it's chest pain or shortness of breath or abdominal pain, the reason your health can't wait is that, as a disease progresses, it can lead to consequences that may not be reversible.
What are some other important screenings and procedures that may be getting delayed because of the pandemic?
Everything from mammograms and colonoscopies to important vaccinations, especially for children. The World Health Organization says that, because of the pandemic, 80 million children might not visit the doctor’s office to receive crucial vaccines.
Patients are also putting off important elective surgeries. We sometimes hear the word “elective” and think of something like cosmetic surgery, but elective surgeries also include things like lung biopsies.
If I see a lung mass on a CAT scan, I need to biopsy it to see if it's cancer and, if it is, begin treatment as soon as possible. If we don't, then the mass keeps growing and the cancer can keep infiltrating the body in ways that can increase mortality overall.
In my office, we only allow three people in our lobby at a time to be checked in. And if there are patients who need to be evaluated for acute respiratory issues, I put them straight in a room so they're not sitting in the lobby with other people.ShareDid you like reading this story? Click the heart to show your love.
What can doctors do to help their patients feel more comfortable coming in to see them?
A: The #1 thing physicians need to do is reach out to their patients and let them know what tests and treatments are necessary right now because of the conditions they have.
They also need to communicate about what they’re doing in their office to help keep people safe, like not letting as many people into the waiting room as they previously did.
In my office, for example, we have a nice outside area, so we only allow three people in our lobby at a time to be checked in. And if there are patients who need to be evaluated for acute respiratory issues, I put them straight in a room so they're not sitting in the lobby with other people.
Physicians need to articulate their strategy, and they can use My Health Can't Wait to see some of the approaches for how to do this.
Patients should check in with their physicians, too, about things like whether they need to get their blood sugar checked or if they might need to have a prescription revisited. At My Health Can’t Wait patients can find other questions they may want to ask their healthcare professional to help get the information they need to pursue care with confidence—because we all want to feel safe, and that is the most important thing.
In the Harris poll, more than 80% of people who discussed telehealth options with their physician said they’d be comfortable using it to manage their care. How do you feel about the role of telemedicine in healthcare?
I use telemedicine all the time. I can often get a sense of how sick someone is and what they need to do right now just by looking at them.
I can order a chest X-ray, a CAT scan or labs for a patient who lives several hours away. They get them at the facility closest to them. Then I can meet with the patient, review their imaging and labs and come up with a plan of care moving forward—all remotely.
Telemedicine is about outreach and it allows healthcare to be a little bit more efficient. It’s an important option for patients.
June 2021 News Update: JJMDC just launched a spin-off campaign called My Health Can’t Wait Illinois. What was the thinking behind focusing on this specific area of the country?
COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting communities of color in the U.S. Alarmingly, research also shows people of color are more likely to put off their own care than other groups. In a survey conducted by the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions (SCAI), for instance, respondents identifying as Black or Hispanic were asked about their willingness to visit a doctor, and only about one in four people said they were comfortable scheduling a medical procedure, compared to almost half of the general population.
That’s why the JJMDC developed this spin-off of the My Health Can’t Wait campaign—to help close the disparities gap for Black and Hispanic Americans by arming them with the tools and resources they need to prioritize their health.
Specifically, the team wanted to focus on making change in an area of the country where it’s most needed, and Illinois emerged as one of those areas. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only worsened the historical health inequities in Illinois, and particularly in communities of color. In Chicago, for example, almost two-thirds of residents are Black or Hispanic—groups that are significantly more likely to die from cancer, heart disease and diabetes than their white counterparts.
Enter My Health Can’t Wait Illinois, where state residents can find local resources to help them secure healthcare coverage and COVID-19 relief and assistance, plus information on COVID-19 testing sites and safety precautions Illinois hospitals have in place to help keep people safe as they return to care.
There are also resources for healthcare professionals such as patient outreach templates, discussion checklists and other tools they may find helpful as they’re navigating practicing medicine during the pandemic. If you’re in Illinois, I encourage you to check it out to learn more.