As reported last week, serious depression has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, during the past six months, the growth of U.S. adults with mental health issues rose to 53%. From the onset of this plague, many experts feared that the U.S. could soon be facing two public health crises — a viral pandemic and a mental health pandemic. There now exists a third front that must be addressed.
In the early stages of the pandemic, out of necessity, everything from routine screenings, annual physicals and other nonemergency health care visits were canceled. In response, Americans put a hold on preventive care. As recently reported by The New York Times, though restrictions have been lifted, there is little sign that this deferred care is being made up.
Health officials fear this “could pose long-term risks,” the Times’ Sarah Kliff reports. “The data shows how the pandemic has rippled outward from the intensive care units that have cared for coronavirus patients to primary care doctors and pediatricians, who have seen their practices upended by patients’ reduced demand.”
The statistics used in the report are drawn from millions of health insurance claims and are said to show a consistent pattern of Americans remaining wary of visiting hospitals and medical offices. While people continue seeking care they cannot avoid, such as hospital admissions for childbirth, they are skipping procedures they believe they can put off. This would include more invasive preventive procedures, such as mammograms and colonoscopies, which have shown the greatest decline.
“When the pandemic began, some experts predicted that a decline in care would be followed by a boom in demand,” Kliff writes. “Doctor’s offices might see higher-than-normal visit numbers as patients made up for deferred care. Six months into the pandemic, that hasn’t happened.”
“The pandemic has not played out like any of us would have hoped,” says Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor of health policy at Harvard Medical School. “Now it seems that the vast majority of that deferred care will never come back.” It is believed that it could take years to understand how this deferred preventive care might affect health outcomes for Americans.
“Elective surgery does not mean optional or unimportant,” Dr. Brian McBeth, a certified physician executive and emergency medicine specialist with O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, California, explains in a U.S. News report. “Many times, these are very important to preserve one’s health and quality of life.”
Adds Julie Hilsenbeck, chief nursing officer with Providence Southern California, “They spot the abnormalities that may be early-warning signs of serious conditions and they diagnose irregularities, including tumors and other very serious conditions.”
According to Dr. Richard Seidman, chief medical officer of L.A. Care Health Plan, “The head of the National Cancer Institute says delays in this type of screening could result in as many as 10,000 more deaths from breast and colorectal cancer in the next 10 years.”
It is why there is a major push from doctors and other health care providers from across the health care spectrum urging patients to reschedule appointments that may have been canceled or postponed over the spring and summer. Not doing so could have tragic consequences.
“For complex conditions like diabetes … staying on top of the condition by tightly controlling blood sugars and visiting with your doctor or doctors frequently is all part of managing the disease,” U.S. News’ Elaine K. Howley reports.
“Mammograms, colonoscopies, PAP smears, skin checks, CT scans of the lungs for former smokers and a variety of other routine cancer screenings are designed to be repeated at a certain frequency, and keeping to that schedule is important,” she adds.
These screenings “are important mechanisms to promote early detection of cancer, which can often be more easily treated when diagnosed early,” McBeth says.
According to Seidman: “Blood pressure checks and other tests, especially for people who are taking medications related to chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia are important and should not be delayed.” The U.S. News report explains that “if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other risk factors for heart disease, you should check in with your doctor regularly.”
Dr. Carrie A. Horn, a hospitalist and chief medical officer and chief of the division of hospital and internal medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, notes that “if you’re on any medications, you should keep up with your doctor’s recommended interval for check-ins to make sure you aren’t having any complications.”
“Oral health is important to overall health, so it’s important to keep your dental appointments as well,” Seidman says. He adds that “studies have shown a link between gum disease and heart disease, and people with diabetes can develop gum disease if they don’t receive regular dental care.”
“Whenever we can address an issue sooner or a problem sooner, it usually means that we can handle it a bit easier,” says Brett D. Sachs, a fellow member of the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons and a foot and ankle surgeon with Rocky Mountain Foot and Ankle Center in Colorado.
As reported in U.S. News, “When little problems snowball, that can turn into a real health threat that in certain cases could end up being even more dangerous than contracting COVID-19.”