Even though we’re used to the COVID-19 pandemic by now, we still need to exercise caution when it comes to outings. Especially during a time when cases are climbing higher by the day.
So, where do doctors appointments come into play? What should you postpone and what should you do about vital screenings or exams for health conditions?
We spoke with some experts to bring you this guide on what checkups or appointments you should keep, which you should cancel, and how to safely go to the necessary ones during the pandemic.
Routine visits should be evaluated based on your health history or issues, along with COVID-19 risk in your area.
It’s generally recommended that you continue your routine doctor appointments right now, like your yearly physical or gynecological exam. Experts are worried many health issues are going undiagnosed during the pandemic. By now, your doctors have likely established COVID-19 protocols to make sure you’ll be as safe as possible during your visit.
“I wouldn’t recommend cancelling right now unless your doctor’s office tells you that you need to,” said Abisola Olulade, a board-certified family medicine physician affiliated with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group in San Diego.
“Physicals and other routine appointments are important because we often detect things patients didn’t know they had such as high blood pressure or an abnormal skin mole,” Olulade continued. “We also refer patients for screening colonoscopies and mammograms and perform pap smears, all of which are an important part of your health maintenance.”
However, you should make alternate plans for regular checkups if your area has a high COVID positivity rate (anything above 5% is usually cause for concern or at least pause) or if your city or state is under stay-at-home orders.
“Routine physicals are important but would not be the priority in a situation where the number of COVID cases are really high,” Olulade said. “And in cases when COVID case counts are high, if you are someone who is otherwise healthy, then you can reschedule ― better than canceling if possible ― your physicals and nonurgent concerns.”
The same consideration may be applied to routine dental appointments, according to Kavita Patel, HuffPost’s medical contributor and an internal medicine physician in Washington, D.C.
“If you are in an area with a high number of cases, I would consider delaying it,” Patel told HuffPost in July. “If you are in an area that has had declines, I would schedule and ask on the phone what precautions your dentist and the hygienist are taking. If you do go, I would bring hand sanitizer and a mask to your appointment, just to have if you end up waiting in a waiting area. If you can wait in your car/outside and they can text you to come in, even better.”
Appointments for manicures, pedicures and hair also can wait if you’re worried about disease transmission, said Adam Rosh, an emergency room physician in Detroit and the founder and CEO of Rosh Review. If you have a pet, you should also consider calling veterinarians to see if they advise bringing your animal in for a checkup or if that can wait as well.
Why all the fuss? Rosh said appointments typically come with having to sit in a waiting room ― potentially with people who are sick ― and that increases your risk for exposure, especially indoors.
Inna Chern, a dentist in New York City, noted that while health care offices tend to be cleaner than average public spaces, the risk could arise from other areas of the building. Wearing a face covering and washing your hands can help mitigate some of that risk.
Call your doctors and discuss your specific case and whether they think you can wait to have a particular exam. Your health history, any specific factors that may increase your likelihood of disease, your health status and your chances of contracting a severe case of COVID-19 all factor into determining if you should follow through with a routine appointment.
Chat with your doctor if your ‘elective’ procedure is becoming more urgent. If it’s not vital, it may have to wait.
Many states canceled elective surgeries early in the pandemic. This was done mainly to make sure health care workers had enough medical supplies like masks, gloves and tests to use. This could become an issue again as coronavirus infections rise, Olulade said.
If your procedure isn’t considered an emergency, then it likely should be postponed, according to experts. This includes cases related to sports medicine and cosmetic surgeries.
“Anything that can be delayed should be delayed,” Miles Varn, the CEO of health advisory firm PinnacleCare, told the “Today” show in July. “There’s no reason to put yourself at risk if the surgery isn’t essential at this time.”
Some procedures that are considered “elective,” however, can be vital to your health, Olulade said. (Hernias, for example, can become a major issue.) If this is the case for you, chat with your doctor about your options ― especially if it’s an issue that’s really bothering you. “Delayed care unfortunately often leads to bad outcomes,” Olulade said.
You should also feel free to consult with hospitals about their COVID-19 precautions and procedures. Your risk of exposure may increase, but hospital officials should be able to tell you what they’re doing to protect patients (which likely includes sanitization practices, wearing protective equipment, spacing out visits by patients and limiting or banning visitors).
If you have regular appointments for cancer or addiction treatment, you should go.
Recovery centers are working hard to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, so those that are currently in live-in treatment centers should stay unless otherwise advised by the treatment center, explained Sarah Johnson, chief medical officer at Landmark Recovery.
“Many outpatient programs have found ways to deliver care via telehealth or other modalities aligned with social distancing,” she said, noting that hundreds of AA and other types of recovery meetings around the world should be available online. “And many sponsors are able to meet in-person with their sponsees who need extra support as long as everyone is well and practicing preventive measures.”
Patients who are undergoing cancer treatments should discuss their follow-up options with their physicians, said Joshua Mansour, a hematologist and oncologist in Los Angeles. Each case is specific to that particular patient.
“A few situations where a patient should be seen in the clinic is if they are currently on active treatment receiving chemotherapy, have lab abnormalities that need to be followed, or are symptomatic in any way,” Mansour said.
Don’t put off health assessments. If you aren’t going in person, you should do virtual check-ins.
According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation in May, almost half of adults say they or someone in their household has skipped or postponed medical care because of COVID-19. This can lead to dangerous health outcomes, including ones associated with the coronavirus ― especially if you have an underlying condition. Keep in touch with your doctor, even if you have to do it virtually.
“Appointments for uncontrolled chronic conditions are important,” Olulade said. “We know that keeping your chronic conditions ― diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc. ― controlled is one of the best ways to protect yourself from getting a severe case of COVID.”
Therapists are doing appointments with patients via virtual platforms, Skype or FaceTime. Even dentists and doctors are offering virtual consultations. If you have a question for your general practitioner, you can also call their office and ask if they have telehealth options or ask to speak with them on the phone.
If your physician’s office is closed and isn’t picking up the phone, or if they don’t provide a telehealth service, you can take other steps to connect. Rodney Rohde, a professor and chair with the clinical laboratory science program at Texas State College of Health Professions, said to check if your doctor has an online portal and ask questions through the site.
“Also check with your doctor’s office to see if you can email ― this is an extremely helpful tool for consulting with your medical provider as well and even sending photos,” Olulade said.
Some companies, like Small Door Veterinary, are providing a 24/7 open line of communication with vets through an app, which allows pet parents to contact and receive a response from a member of the medical team, access medical information, refill prescriptions and schedule a virtual consultation.
The bottom line is we need to take precautions to control the spread of the virus while still taking care of ourselves. Protect yourself if you do go to the doctor or the pharmacy in person, including wearing a face mask, distancing and washing your hands. And if you haven’t yet already, get your flu shot.
Whatever you do, “don’t delay your care,” Olulade said.
This article has been updated to reflect newer information about COVID-19, state reopenings and safety measures.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of its posting, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
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