With medical visits picking up again among patients vaccinated against COVID-19, health providers are starting to see the consequences of a year of pandemic-delayed preventive and emergency care as they find more advanced cancer and rotting and damaged teeth, among other ailments.
Dr. Brian Rah, chair of the cardiology department at Montana’s Billings Clinic, was confused in the early days of the pandemic. Why the sudden drop in heart attack patients at the Billings Clinic? And why did some who did come arrive hours after first feeling chest pains?
Two patients, both of whom suffered greater heart damage by delaying care, provided what came to be typical answers. One said he was afraid of contracting COVID-19 by going to the hospital. The other patient went to the emergency room in the morning, left after finding it too crowded, and then returned that night when he figured there would be fewer patients — and a lower risk of catching the disease.
“For a heart attack patient, the first hour is known as the golden hour,” Rah said. After that, the likelihood of death or a lifelong reduction in activities and health increases, he said.
Dr. JP Valin, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at SCL Health of Colorado and Montana, said he is “kept awake at night” by delays in important medical tests. “People put off routine breast examinations, and there are going to be some cancers hiding that are not going to be identified, potentially delaying intervention,” he said.
Valin is also concerned that patients aren’t seeking timely treatment when suffering appendicitis symptoms like abdominal pain, fever and nausea. A burst appendix generally involves more risk and a week’s hospitalization, instead of one day of treatment for those who get care quickly, he said.
Dr. Fola May, a gastroenterologist who is also quality director and a health equity researcher at UCLA Health, worries about the consequences of an 80% to 90% drop in colonoscopies performed by the health system’s doctors during the first months of COVID-19.
“All of a sudden we were downplaying health measures that are usually high-priority, such as trying to prevent diseases like cancer, to manage the pandemic,” May said.
Along with exacerbating existing health problems, the COVID-19 pandemic has also caused a host of new medical issues in patients. The American population will be coming out of the pandemic with teeth worn down from grinding, back problems from slouching at makeshift home-work stations and mental health problems from a combination of isolation and being too close to family.
Dr. Despina Markogiannakis, a dentist in Chevy Chase, Maryland, said patients don’t argue when she tells them they have been grinding or clenching their teeth and might require a root canal procedure, dental implant or night guard.