A disturbing report recently aired by the Pioneer Institute calls for public-health officials to refocus their COVID-centric efforts, because patients who’ve put off doctors’ appointments during the pandemic have overwhelmed hospitals with illness and ailments that could have been pre-empted by preventative care.
“By their failure to remind the population that they should still see their physicians for regular screenings, even during COVID, public health authorities may have helped to create another looming public health crisis,” wrote Dr. William Smith, a Pioneer Institute visiting fellow.
The looming crisis to which the doctor refers stems from the significant reduction in screenings, diagnoses, and early treatment for serious conditions such as heart disease during the early stages of the pandemic, when everyone was advised to stay home.
Compared to 2018 and 2019, primary-care visits in the United States were down 21.4% during the second quarter of 2020, according to the report.
Compared to the more than 375,000 deaths nationwide from COVID-19 in 2020, 691,000 people died from heart disease and more than 600,000 from cancer, both of which, when treated early, can lead to successful outcomes.
Cholesterol screenings were down 36% during the pandemic and blood pressure evaluations dropped 50%, Smith noted, citing outside studies.
Dr. Smith’s dire revelations shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s been in a hospital emergency room.
Even patients who’ve sustained serious injuries can sometimes languish in an ER hallway for days waiting for an available hospital room.
That’s not only due to patients who’ve neglected their care, but also because of the critical lack of mental-health resources, which in turn backs up emergency rooms.
We can’t blame the general population for a reluctance to make or keep medical appointments, especially during the onset of this pandemic.
Across the country back in March 2020, non-urgent surgeries and other medical appointments were halted so health-care workers could treat COVID-19 patients and at the same time conserve protective equipment in short supply, like masks and gowns.
But when the initial surge retreated in May, many patients, fearful of being infected with the virus by other patients or caregivers, still stayed away from doctor’s offices and neglected to schedule outpatient hospital appointments for vital services like childhood vaccines and cardiac care.
The medical community’s preoccupation with COVID treatment and prevention also exacted a financial burden.
When the insurance reimbursements that routine office visits and medical procedures provided decreased precipitously, hospitals’ bottom lines went on life support.
Those courageous doctors, nurses and support staff on the front lines of this pandemic were in some cases forced to take pay cuts. Layoffs also occurred to stem the red ink.
By November, health leaders, even faced with a second wave of COVID cases, urged a wary public to no longer defer critical screenings and appointments, as they were instructed to do in the early stages of the pandemic.
And now, a year later, those residual misgivings – reinforced in this report – unfortunately have come home to roost.
Dr. Ron Walls, chief operating officer at Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest hospital network, said patients are now seeking care in “truly unprecedented numbers.”
To help ease the burden on the health-care system, Walls told the Boston Herald that Brigham has taken steps to add more beds in community hospitals, provide home care for patients, and advance proposals to open up ambulatory-care centers that people can access close to home, thus forgoing a hospital trip.
The medical community must mimic the mutating nature of this coronavirus by advancing forward-thinking answers in order to cope with the entire population’s needs.