Is it safe to go to the doctor?

While there is still a small risk of contracting COVID-19 when visiting healthcare facilities, medical experts—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—recommend patients in medical need seek treatment.

Marketplace reports that healthcare providers are stressed because more patients than ever are avoiding seeking treatment—even when they suffer a heart attack or stroke. Childhood vaccination rates are lower than usual, and emergency room visits have been cut in half. 

“A consequence of the pandemic has been the under-utilization of important medical services for patients with non-COVID-19-related urgent and emergent health needs,” the CDC said. “As the pandemic continues, healthcare systems must balance the need to provide necessary services while minimizing risk to patients and healthcare personnel.” 

Marianne Udow-Phillips, a health-policy researcher at the University of Michigan, told Marketplace that people are avoiding hospitals and doctors’ offices because they’re scared. 

“There is a lot of fear that when people go to the hospital, they will become exposed to COVID-19, and they may actually end up sicker than they would if they just stayed home,” Udow-Phillips said.

To keep patients safe, the CDC’s guidelines recommend that providers take advantage of telehealth services when possible and follow infection control best practices. The CDC also recommends that providers prioritize services that, if deferred, would cause harm to at-risk patients. 

The CDC says the following medical needs are high risk and should be treated in-person by a doctor: 

  • Signs/symptoms of stroke or heart attack
  • Dental emergencies
  • Acute abdominal pain
  • Treatment for certain cancer diagnoses
  • Well-child visits for newborns

The following medical needs could potentially need immediate, in-person treatment: 

  • Pediatric vaccinations
  • Change in symptoms for chronic conditions
  • Musculoskeletal injury
  • Certain planned surgical repairs
  • Physical or occupational therapy

The following medical needs do NOT require an immediate trip to the doctor: 

  • Routine primary or specialty care
  • Care for well-controlled chronic conditions
  • Routine screening for asymptomatic conditions
  • Most elective surgeries and procedures

For less urgent doctor visits, telemedicine is the ideal way to interact with your provider. Forrester Research projects telehealth visits will climb to 1 billion by the end of 2020. 

While it has become more popular, the Washington Post reports that the number of visits to physician offices declined nearly 60% starting in mid-March—and telehealth accounted for only 30% of appointments that were still happening. 

Telemedicine can’t always replace face-to-face treatment, especially for patients who need to get updated vaccinations or blood work done. 

Healthcare providers want people who need to see a doctor to know that they have several precautions to ensure every one is as safe as possible. For example, NYU Langone Health said in an interview with Health that all providers, staff, and patients are screened at the entrance with a temperature check and then are required to wear a mask and social distance in the office. 

Additionally, providers ask patients to take their temperature and wash their hands in advance, wear a mask in the car on the way to their appointment, and avoid touching their faces. At this time, adults are discouraged from bringing a loved one with them to the appointment, unless it’s for a health-related reason. 

Sources: CDC, Marketplace, Health, Washington Post 

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