Some of us may be skipping our annual physicals. And our skin exam. Perhaps the dentist, too. Maybe we don’t think we need it this year, with everything going on. Or maybe we’re too spooked by the possibility of contracting COVID-19 to visit the doctor’s office.

Overall, it is true that Americans are often in excellent health, particularly when compared to eras past. But as Mark Zeitzer, the Portland-based medical director for acute-care services at ZOOM+Care, explains, that’s because we’ve done a great job with preventive health from annual flu shots to cancer screenings.

“Preventive care greatly improves life expectancy, and it has gotten us to where we are today with a population that’s typically in great health,” he says. “Over the last 10-20 years, we’ve seen the survival rates of cancer go up thanks to early detection,” he says. As another example, flu shots keep us from catching the flu, which in turn helps avoid life-threatening complications like pneumonia.

Ignoring worrying symptoms can lead to worst-case scenarios. “We’ve seen patients who started to experience abdominal swelling in February, but by the time they decide to see a doctor in late summer, their health has deteriorated and they have cancer of the bowel or liver,” Zeitzer says.

Staying on top of your health can help you stay out of the hospital. Preventive medicine can head off health complications that combine with the virus that causes COVID-19 to cause more serious threats to health. Zeitzer points out that a growing body of evidence shows severe COVID-related symptoms are worse in certain populations — such as those diagnosed with diabetes or heart conditions.

Proactively addressing a chronic illness can better your chances of managing COVID-19 and an underlying, undiagnosed risk factor. 

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“Get screening tests done,” Zeitzer recommends. If you’re nervous, call the clinic, read over clinic precautions, or fill out paperwork in advance. Wear a mask, eye protection, and even gloves if you’re in a high-touch area. Or consider a virtual visit.

Virtual visits

Until the COVID-19 outbreak, many physician’s offices were conducting daily work with obsolete technology, Zeitzer points out. “The doctor’s office was one of the few places you’d see a fax machine regularly,” he says wryly.

COVID-19 spurred rapid advances, including the ability to make online or “remote” office visits. Whether for initial screenings or routine care, a video visit helps minimize time spent in offices and labs.

“It’s amazing what you can take care of in a virtual format,” Zeitzer says. Virtual visits with your regular doctor or a specialty clinic can be scheduled at your convenience — without sitting in a waiting room or interacting with others in person.

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Caring for your health at home

These inexpensive tools can help you monitor your everyday health:

• Smartwatch to measure heart rate

• Thermometer to monitor temperature changes

• Blood pressure cuff to watch blood pressure

• Scale for noting weight changes

• Pulse oximeter to monitor your oxygen levels

Even dermatologists can use high-definition photos to examine potential skin problems or skin cancer. If a virtual visit determines you need blood work or other lab work, doctors can recommend next steps and let you know if another appointment is needed.

Technology has also increased patient participation in health care. Physicians can now ask patients to relay information provided by smartwatches, digital thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, or pulse oximeters (which measure oxygen in your blood). Patients can even use a smartphone flashlight to give doctors a peek at their throats.

“Sometimes, getting your blood pressure checked at home or the pharmacy can be more accurate than at the doctor’s office, due to ‘white coat hypertension,’ ” Zeitzer says — increased blood pressure in response to the stress of being in a doctor’s office.

Mental health matters

But other types of stress can also contribute to high blood pressure.

“Mental health is a huge issue right now,” Zeitzer says. Many in our region deal with multiple external stresses, including the COVID-19 pandemic, discrimination, unemployment or underemployment and general uncertainty.

In the Northwest, fire- and smoke-related issues have been compounded by mental health issues. “For every patient I see with abdominal pain and cough, there’s a level of anxiety and depression making things worse,” Zeitzer says. 

Patients can now see therapists face-to-face over a secure virtual connection, he points out. “From the comfort of your couch, you can have an appointment with a mental health nurse practitioner or psychiatrist and have medications delivered as early as the next day.”

In-clinic visits

Some visits must be done in person, like mammograms, Pap smears, colonoscopies, or teeth cleanings. Many physicians and pharmacies offer quick in-and-out flu vaccination visits. At ZOOM+Care, patients can get vaccinated at appointments that take less than five minutes.

Vaccines are still necessary, particularly the flu vaccine this year. It can be challenging to distinguish between the flu and COVID-19, Zeitzer points out, since both can cause similar symptoms like fever and cough. Flu season will ramp up this fall, and shots can help decrease the spread.

Just because many kids may not be in school doesn’t mean they’re less at risk for the flu this year. “We pick up tons of germs by touching things, and children are touching things all the time,” Zeitzer says. He should know — he has three children of his own. “Children spread germs very efficiently and effectively.”

“Get everyone immunized to stay flu-free this fall,” he recommends.

In other words, routine care is self-care that keeps you well now and in the long run.

“It’s so important that people take care of themselves with preventive measures,” Zeitzer says. “Life is different right now and it’s easy to put off routine care, but don’t ignore what your body’s telling you if something doesn’t feel right. Prioritze the preventive care that some people have been putting off to keep yourself healthy.”

ZOOM+Care makes going to the doctor easy, affordable, and even kind of enjoyable. No crowded sitting rooms, no long waits to see your family doctor, no aggravation with billing, and no annoying upcharging. Just amazing care that empowers patients, optimized for real life.