While many take every precaution to limit COVID-19 exposure, experts say delaying standard medical visits such as dental appointments or annual checkups is unwise.
Medical professionals say they are witnessing patients putting health care on hold — from hearing tests to cancer screenings — often due to fears of contracting the novel coronavirus.
Richard Whittaker, senior medical director and practicing physician with WellMed at Ingram Park, said even avoiding getting flu shots or canceling regular appointments could jeopardize overall health, particularly for heart patients or those with chronic conditions.
“Patients should always get their preventative care because it’s proven that preventative care helps improve long-term health,” Whittaker said. “Not getting lab work or exams to monitor and control chronic conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure poses a significant risk of having to go to urgent care, the emergency room or the hospital for treatment. These sites can expose you to a greater chance of getting COVID than in your primary-care clinic.”
Hospital emergency rooms are for the critically ill or wounded, not routine medical maintenance, physicians said.
“This unnecessary care further increases the risk of overwhelming our hospital systems where they’re already struggling to care for patients with COVID. People need to know it’s safe to navigate our health care system,” Whittaker said.
Moreover, today’s technology enables visits without going into the doctor’s office.
For those reluctant to travel to a medical building, many physicians and clinics offer telemedicine, such as CommuniCare Health Centers.
A health care provider makes the diagnosis and treatment using remote or virtual technology, like an online consultation. These can replace many — but not all — consults by a practitioner or a provider.
Dr. Carlos E. Moreno, vice president and chief clinical officer of CommuniCare Health Centers, said his company offers curbside and telemedicine visits ranging from family wellness to women’s health.
“In the current era of COVID-19, having an annual physical or going to your doctor for medical care can be seen as another potential route of COVID-19 exposure,” Moreno said. “However, visiting with your physician for a routine checkup is a very important step in preventive care, and can help you improve your health. Your health care provider can sense physical or emotional changes in yourself that may signal a developing disease or a decline in health.”
For the hard of hearing, masks that cover mouths and inhibit lip reading or volume levels can be an extra challenge, which is why audiology appointments are paramount, health care providers said.
“We have a lot of patients that have been struggling to communicate due to universal masking,” said Dr. Phallon Doss at Doss Audiology & Hearing Center. “They now realized they were not hearing well and relied on visual cues. Patients are very happy to be able to communicate again easily, even when others are wearing masks.”
She’s pleased folks realize the value of regular exams, even during a pandemic.
“We have also diagnosed several pediatric hearing losses that would have otherwise gone untreated if their parents had delayed care,” Doss said.
Although many clients deferred appointments last spring at the outbreak’s outset, Pearl Molina of Cambridge Family Dental said they’re returning.
“It’s important to keep up your regular, routine checkups because the doctor can find problems before it’s an acute or emergency situation,” Molina said. Fearing infection, many folks are bypassing gyms and studio classes, but physical therapists are seeing problems when those suffering from health issues shirk fitness.
“Overall, people are generally moving less (and) working from home, (so they’re) less out in the community and that equals less exercise,” said Mike McTague, regional managing partner of Texas Physical Therapy Specialists. “Our biggest concern are the patients where movement and education are needed to reduce potential ‘chronicity,’ (like) low back pain, neck pain and general-extremity pain.”
Postponements now could lead to trouble later, he added.
“Long-term health will be affected if conditions and pain that effect movement persist, such as chronic conditions of heart disease, (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), diabetes are all controlled with some form of consistent exercise. Physical therapy is designed to get patients back to moving,” he said.
February was National Cancer Prevention Month, but according to GenesisCare officials, any time is right to highlight the importance of screenings.
Reports indicate late-term cancer screenings have risen due to COVID-19, as patients wait until the last minute.
Late-term cases jumped 20% in the U.S., and 27% in the United Kingdom, with an increased mortality up to 3.2%, according to officials.
Dr. Trevor Lim with GenesisCare said he’s seen many people delay screenings, only to receive an updated diagnosis of metastatic cancer, or spreading cancer. He said it’s estimated that thousands more could die of breast and colorectal cancers.
But, Lim said, there’s still hope.
“There is an elderly woman I met recently who was a survivor of three different cancers over the past 20 years,” he said. “When a spot in her lung grew suddenly, she quickly underwent the appropriate evaluation and was found to have an early stage non-small cell lung cancer. Because of her diligence in following her doctors’ recommendations, her cancer was caught before it had spread and we hope to put her in remission a fourth time.”
Lim added, “Witnessing cancer success stories such as this one are especially encouraging during this pandemic.”