- Researchers say 20 percent of people surveyed said they avoided medical appointments during COVID-19 lockdowns.
- Experts are urging people who skipped these appointments to go into their doctor’s office as soon as possible.
- They say the delays may have caused what initially were minor health concerns to develop into more serious issues.
- Experts say the increase in serious cases could cause a crush of work for healthcare professionals.
It’s been widely reported that regular medical appointments lagged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But here’s an update: You still need to get back to your regularly scheduled medical routines.
According to a new study from the Netherlands, 1 in 5 people surveyed said they avoided healthcare services during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Even more concerning, experts say, is the fact that people avoiding their appointments are often dealing with more urgent symptoms.
That, in turn, can lead to more severe outcomes “that could have been prevented,” according to Marije Splinter, a study co-author and PhD candidate in the department of epidemiology at Erasmus MC-University Medical Center Rotterdam.
Researchers found that 1 in 5 people had avoided appointments. More alarming, Splinter told Healthline, are the symptoms that a third of those avoiding appointments report.
“For example, lower back pain is often self-limiting and generally does not need direct medical attention,” she explained.
“In contrast, there are also more acute symptoms such as chest pain, limb weakness, or an irregular heartbeat that do need immediate medical evaluation in order to prevent clinical outcomes such a heart attack or stroke,” she said.
That continued delay could also impact specialists, urgent care centers, hospitals, and even pharmacists as issues that could have been treated as preventable move to a more serious status.
“On a systematic level, an increase in healthcare avoidance shifts the burden of healthcare demand from primary care to more specialized (hospital) care, and from prevention to treatment,” Splinter said.
“These additional demands in care only worsen the situation of long waiting lists as a consequence of canceled or postponed care due to COVID-19,” she added.
The culture of avoidance
Experts say COVID-19 lockdowns gave people who don’t like to visit the doctor a reason for avoidance.
“People make up their minds (that they don’t want to be seen) and then find a convenient excuse,” Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline.
“Healthcare avoidance has been a public health issue for a long time,” Splinter said.
She noted that before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it had already been shown that certain people were more likely to avoid healthcare than others.
Splinter said with lockdowns and warnings about overcrowding at medical sites as well as “governments urging citizens to avoid physical contact and to stay at home might have also pushed (other) people to seek healthcare out of fear of contracting COVID-19, or of burdening a physician with seemingly irrelevant, non-COVID-19 related symptoms.”
Pharmacists have also felt the impact.
Dr. Ani Rostomyan, PharmD, a clinical pharmacist in Los Angeles, said the impact is evident every day.
“Imagine a situation where a patient has not seen their physician face-to-face in a very long time,” she told Healthline. “Our patients have just fallen apart.”
The amount of time pharmacists have to spend with patients, she said, has skyrocketed as a result.
Rostomyan worries that if the public does not begin catching up on appointments, the ripple effect could be long felt.
“This is going to come back and bite us in a few years,” she said. “It’s coming (the crush of medical needs from the delays) and we have to be ready.”
What to do
With the possibility of a winter surge of COVID-19 cases, how are people and the healthcare system at large to catch up?
The first step sounds easy, Cutler said: Pick up the phone and book those appointments.
“It’s time to get it done,” he said, adding that all practitioners should be contacting their clientele to remind them of overdue appointments and assure them it’s safe to come into the office.
“It’s hard to be 100 percent reassuring (with COVID),” Cutler said, “but most medical practices are making every effort to be safe.”
However, individual outreach may not be the solution on its own.
Cutler said his practice has preemptively added more practitioners to be ready for an uptick in rescheduled appointments (which, he points out, they must juggle along with as many as 10 COVID-19 diagnoses a day).
Being ready, he said, can help the public by not having to put off their new appointments for too long.
Rostomyan suggests more teams adding clinical pharmacists to their lineup, giving patients a chance to take care of many things in one stop, as well as keeping information flowing between the team.
Pharmacists, she said, can pick up on things such as prescriptions that go unfilled and other hints that someone needs to be seen and may be avoiding it.
Splinter said her study team believes that a more general public education on the subject is needed soon.
“At a societal level, governments and/or healthcare foundations can launch national campaigns to urge citizens when to (immediately) reach out to their physician when they have symptoms,” Splinter said. “Most importantly, it should be clear to everyone that seeking help or visiting physicians is safe, even during a pandemic.”
If you’ve fallen behind
So, what if you’re one of the people who have avoided a needed checkup or ignored concerning health signs?
Now, experts say, is the time to pick back up and get going again.
The first step? Don’t feel silly or scared when you reach out now to make that appointment.
“Even during lockdowns, it is important to realize that you can always contact your physician in case you have concerns about symptoms or your health in general, even when these seem insignificant or not worth burdening your physician for,” Dr. Silvan Licher, the study’s lead author and an epidemiologist in the department of epidemiology at Erasmus MC-University Medical Center Rotterdam, told Healthline.
“It goes both ways,” Rostomyan added. “We should be looking out for the patients and getting them back, but the patients have to get going again as well. It’s time.”