How delaying routine physician visits throughout COVID-19 poses well being dangers
As COVID-19 cases rise again across the country, people may consider skipping doctor visits to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. However, the decision to postpone checkups like mammograms and colonoscopies, as well as annual spa visits, could have serious health implications, especially for older adults.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 40% of adults delayed or avoided medical care due to concerns about COVID-19 in the first few months of the pandemic. This included a third of those who say they avoid routine annual audits. In Arizona, 1,454,556 people said they had postponed medical care in the past four weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic.]
Our data at UnitedHealthcare shows that insurance claims for mammograms fell by as much as 95% in April. In general, we’ve seen 1 million fewer screenings for breast, colon, and cervical cancer this year than we’d expect from our Medicare Advantage members. ONE Quest Diagnostics study The number of diagnoses for six types of cancer decreased by 46% that year.
The National Cancer Institute explained the astounding consequences of missed or delayed care and predicted that delayed checkups could lead to it 10,000 additional deaths from breast and colon cancer alone in the next decade. And the CDC notes People with obesity, diabetes, heart or lung disease die at 12 times the rate of the rest of the population because they don’t need care for fear of getting COVID-19 in their doctor’s office.
This reflects a new study however, only two-thirds of those deaths were attributed to COVID-19 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found US deaths in March and April to be 20% higher than expected. The remaining deaths were likely due to patients not receiving the care they need for heart disease or other health conditions.
Fortunately, in the months since the pandemic, we have learned many lessons and gained valuable insights on how best to keep ourselves and our environment safe and healthy. Healthcare providers and clinics have responded by changing the way offices look and work. This often means deliberate social distancing, mandatory indoor masks, smart planning, and limiting the number of people in waiting rooms. Many ask patients to fill out the required forms at home and then wait in the car until the appointment is made in order to avoid the waiting room altogether. If certain checkups, tests, or vaccinations are required, some clinics offer drive-through care.
Alternative options for personal appointments are becoming increasingly popular. Many providers are now offering and promoting appointments and annual wellness visits via telemedicine so that patients can meet their doctor safely and comfortably from home. At-risk or critically ill patients may be eligible for remote disease management services. Most UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members can enjoy an annual visit to a licensed doctor from the comfort of their own home.
As we prepare for the pandemic to spread through winter and beyond, a good first step is to get yourself a flu shot – and think about combining it with any other needed care or check-ups. Keep calling 911 if you experience serious symptoms, such as chest pain. Ask your doctor or health insurance company about telemedicine, home monitoring, and other virtual care options that may be available to you.
COVID-19 is a serious disease and it will likely be years before we know the full impact of the pandemic on our nation’s health. As we work to save lives, protect ourselves, and prevent the virus from spreading, we also need to make sure that we don’t add its toll through late care and missed diagnoses. Take care of yourself by – safely – looking for the necessary care today.
Dr. Stacie Pinderhughes is a doctor for internal medicine, geriatric medicine, palliative medicine with UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement.