Getting Back Into Care During COVID-19
Apr 06, 2021 Victoria Pelham
The COVID-19 pandemic has added a layer of fear and doubt to so many hallmarks of normal, healthy life. The doctor's office has been no exception.
Amid physical distancing, temporary facility closures and anxiety over exposure to the coronavirus, healthcare visits plummeted. People opted out of care across specialties—from primary and urgent care to pediatric vaccinations and oncology. In all, more than 40% of American adults avoided or delayed medical care during COVID-19, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.
"It's just so much more important to come in, face what's going on, stop the bleed and get back on track."
Many others have also gone through major life transitions during this time of upheaval. Now, with vaccinations ramping up, many people are finding an entry point back into care.
If you've stayed away from the doctor's office, getting back on top of your health might seem daunting, especially during a pandemic. But it doesn't have to be. Here's what you should know about seeking care.
Don't wait any longer
Postponing care raises the possibility of missed cancer diagnoses, mistaken self-diagnoses and preventable illnesses. More than 60% of primary care doctors believe some of their patients will experience avoidable illness due to COVID-19-related delays, and 38% believe some will die as a result, according to one survey from the Primary Care Collaborative.
A primary care provider is the best place to start
A primary care provider can give you a physical exam and evaluation, and refer you to a specialist if you need additional testing or follow-up care. You'll also have a chance to address unusual symptoms or concerns. And they can provide recommended immunizations and medical screenings.
Health experts recommend all adults see their primary care doctor at least once per year, while those with chronic medical conditions require more frequent visits. Those with illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, chronic kidney disease and thyroid issues should also see a provider in person.
"There's more of an urgency for people who have chronic illnesses and are taking medications—to make sure the medications we're prescribing are still safe for them to take," Dr. Shukhman says.
The risk of unintended medication side effects increases with age, as does the number of illnesses you have and medications you're taking, she adds. Consistent supervision is key for disease management.
Take care of screenings right away
A reduction in health screenings—including mammograms, pap smears and colonoscopies—has been a key fear among the medical community. One survey from the Prevent Cancer Foundation found 35% of American adults missed scheduled cancer screenings during the pandemic. Mammograms, specifically, fell by 67% among insured women 46 to 64 years old, according to a JAMA Network Open study.
My CS-Link™, and most health portals, offer a timetable of recommended health exams, as well as automatic reminders for patients.
The American Cancer Society guidelines for crucial cancer tests such as mammograms and colonoscopies suggest annual exams starting at age 45, while women 55 and older can switch to mammograms every two years. Women should begin annual Pap smears (testing for cervical cancer) at 25.
Pull your medical records
Sharing medical records from a previous provider is always preferable to starting from scratch, so your provider has some of your history, labs and treatment plans—even if the picture is incomplete, Dr. Shukhman notes. That gives the doctor a baseline to measure your health.
"If patients bring a medical history with them, it allows the doctor to come up with a plan and manage them from the moment they come in," she says.
You can find these records by calling your former doctor's office or requesting them from their website, then either having them sent directly to your provider or printing them out and bringing them in.
Medical offices are safe
Most providers have implemented strict COVID-19 safety protocols, including a combination of universal masking, temperature checks, physical distancing, separation of those with suspected COVID-19 symptoms and frequent disinfection.
"My office is safer than anywhere else," Dr. Shukhman stresses.
Consider video visits
When finding your doctor, make sure to ask them about video visits, which have dramatically increased during the pandemic. Dr. Shukhman recommends choosing a video visit over a phone call, if possible, because it allows the doctor to see you—making assessing your general health easier.
If you need a health assessment on demand, Cedars-Sinai offers existing patients the Video Visit Now service. Patients can access virtual visits with a healthcare provider, in lieu of an in-person urgent care visit.
Some people have also faced problems reaching providers and medical offices during the pandemic, with office hours limited or other schedule changes. Online options like video visits might make it easier to get questions answered quickly, Dr. Shukhman notes.
There's no reason to fear
If you've avoided the doctor, an evaluation might cause you some health anxiety. That's even more true after a year when many people escalated bad habits due to the pandemic, from sedentary lifestyles to unhealthy snacking and increased drinking.
Dr. Shukhman points out that many people are likely feeling guilt about their weight gain, in particular.
Remember that your doctor is here to help. It's better to know if there's a problem, so you can stop it from getting worse, she adds.
"It's just so much more important to come in, face what's going on, stop the bleed and get back on track," she says.