While Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order has been a major factor in limiting the spread of COVID-19, it was never meant to keep us from receiving necessary health care. I am hearing alarming stories about people who have delayed care because they are afraid of getting COVID-19 or because they think we have no room for them in our clinics and hospitals.
One of our doctors had a diabetes patient who delayed coming in for care and suffered vision loss that could have been avoided if the patient had sought care right away. First responders are reporting that many patients are afraid of going to the hospital. Cardiologists and neurologists are finding that people are not seeking care at the first signs of a heart attack or stroke, which is when treatments are most effective. Pediatricians are seeing parents refusing to bring their babies or toddlers in for critical vaccinations, even when informed during a telehealth visit that the greater risk to their children is from the diseases that vaccines can prevent.
A recent survey by The Commonwealth Fund finds that this is not only a local problem. From mid-March to mid-April, outpatient visits across the nation dropped by nearly 60%, and significant declines of more than 60% occurred in many specialty areas, including ophthalmology, otolaryngology (ears, nose and throat), dermatology, surgery, pulmonology, urology, pediatrics, orthopedics and cardiology.
In our state, the reduction in patient visits can be partly attributed to the restrictions on non-urgent medical procedures that were announced on March 19. But even then, patients were advised to come to clinics and hospitals when a delay would result in worsening a life-threatening or debilitating disease. More recently, this definition has been broadened. Patients should seek care if they are at risk of disease progression, increased loss of function, continuing or worsening of significant or severe pain, and deterioration of their overall condition or health.
University of Washington Medicine, like other health systems in the region, has added many new precautions to make it safe to seek in-person care. To cite only a few examples, all staff, patients and visitors must wear face masks in our clinical facilities. We are reconfiguring our waiting rooms and clinical spaces to maintain physical distancing and have separate spaces for patients with respiratory illnesses. We test all hospitalized patients for COVID-19, including testing before surgery or giving birth in our labor and delivery units. We also test employees with symptoms of COVID-19 and are finding a lower rate of positive tests than in the general public.
Since the start of the pandemic, our front-line caregivers and support teams have worked around the clock to care for the most critically ill COVID-19 patients in our hospitals. To preserve resources for their inpatient care, we greatly expanded our telehealth capabilities to provide access to care from home for patients with other health concerns, and this will continue to be an appropriate option for many people in the future. In addition, with the recent and encouraging reduction in COVID-19 cases in our community, we are now able to safely offer more in-person visits for primary and specialty care.
For all of these reasons, please don’t wait to contact your health-care provider if you or a loved one has signs of a serious medical issue. Don’t wait if your kids need vaccinations or if you require care for a chronic condition. Above all, don’t let the fear of COVID-19 keep you from getting timely and safe care in our state’s clinics and hospitals.