This article by Ambra Health CEO, Morris Panner, was originally published in Forbes on December 29, 2020.
One less-talked-about but just as important consequence of the Covid pandemic has been its impact on people seeking routine and preventative care. The data is striking, as evidenced in this CDC report. Since the spring, hundreds of thousands of Americans have canceled annual exams and screenings, postponed elective procedures, and even some prescriptions have simply gone unfilled.
Health Screenings Down From Last Year
Routine exams are typically not considered urgent, but they are valuable and can even be life-saving, helping to catch problems early and enabling patients to learn to manage chronic conditions before they get out of control. Preventative colonoscopies and screenings for cancer and other diseases are especially vital to catching something early before it develops further.
There have already been surveys and studies this year capturing the worrying reduction in some key cancer screenings.
Cancer Today reported on a study from epidemiologist Mara Epstein that compared mammography and PSA testing at a large Massachusetts health care provider from the first five months of this year versus the same period in 2019. It showed mammograms per 1,000 women plummeting from 13.6 per month last year to 6.1 in March 2020, 0.25 in April, and 1.1 in May. A similarly dramatic rate of decline was seen in PSA testing for prostate cancer.
Time To Schedule Appointments Again
The #ReturnToCare campaign is an initiative among medical organizations and patient advocacy groups encouraging patients to reschedule those canceled appointments and resume routine and preventative care, particularly in-person care. For patients, this may mean scheduling a child’s regular checkup that was bypassed, following up with the dermatologist about a growth you’ve been concerned about or making an appointment to get a mammogram.
For providers, urging patients to return to care can come in the form of targeted email blasts reminding them that it’s time to get their flu shot or, more generally, informative missives about how the office is open and ready to schedule their annual primary care or well visit. Mass mailings with information about available services and the resumption of elective procedures can help nudge people back, and phone calls (though they are more time-intensive) are a good way of driving home to the patient how important it is that they not get out of the habit of medical care.
Some health systems and hospitals have created their own marketing campaigns to bring people back into the healthcare fold. Yale New Haven Health System, for example, launched a television campaign this summer featuring ads about the importance of seeking necessary care. A coalition of health care organizations, including Humana and Walgreens, also ran an ad campaign, this one asking people to stop “medical distancing.”
Addressing Patient Concerns
It has not just been a lack of medical resources that has kept many people away from the doctor since earlier this year. In fact, many medical professionals have been more than ready to welcome patients back, but the problem is more due to patients — especially those in higher-risk categories — preferring to stay home for fear of exposing themselves to coronavirus.
Telemedicine has assisted many of these people, especially those in need of prescriptions, but most screenings and care really must be provided in person.
To allay their fears about coming into the office or facility, it is incumbent on providers to inform patients of the health and safety precautions that have been adopted due to Covid, such as explanations of how social distancing is being practiced, mask-wearing rules, cleaning protocols, etc. Knowing exactly what steps are being taken can help restore peace of mind.
It can also help to inform them of any new technologies being employed to provide a healthier environment. For instance, a hospital in Florida is using medication management technology to reduce drug shortages and improve sanitation. From relatively simple tech like no-touch thermometers to sophisticated patient care robots, technology can make in-person visits safer for everyone.
In some cases, though, patients may be avoiding care because of financial concerns, especially since the pandemic has led to massive unemployment. Providers may want to reach out with information about eligibility for Medicaid or low-income insurance plans and to inform patients about preventive care that is fully covered by most plans (e.g., immunizations, mammograms, colonoscopies). Addressing concerns about cost may help entice some patients back to care.
Continuing Health Care Amid The Coronavirus
Now is the time for patients to make a plan to return to routine screenings and preventive care. Although Covid risks continue to persist, since the early days of the pandemic medical facilities have become much better at providing hybrid options for remote visits and implemented stringent new protocols for maintaining the safety of all patients should an office visit be necessary. Patients should consult with their own physician when deciding on the right time to schedule appointments.
This means we should be better positioned to avoid another long drought in routine health care, even as we continue living with the challenges of the ongoing pandemic.