Like many other parts of life, visits to doctors, dentists, ophthalmologists, physical therapists and other healthcare providers have had to be put on hold since the pandemic started. Now quarantine restrictions are starting to ease in some states and doctors have begun to see patients again. But is it safe to go to the doctor during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The rules depend on where you live. For example, just recently the pause in elective surgeries was lifted in some parts of New York state. And on the other side of the country, the California Department of Public Health gave the state’s dentists the green light after restricting non-emergency appointments mid-March.
Even if you live in an area that’s been given the all-clear for non-urgent treatment, there are still risks of being exposed to the coronavirus during a doctor’s visit. A check-up is a very hands-on experience, and going into a doctor’s office might feel scary because, well, that’s where sick people are.
We talked to medical professionals about what to consider before you decide whether to make the trip to the doctor’s office.
Don’t delay vs. put it off for another day
Although the COVID-19 outbreak is dominating the news, it’s not the only risk to human health at the moment. People still have accidents and get sick with non-COVID illnesses. But not all doctor’s visits are created equal.
Leo Nissola MD, COVID-19 investigator and immunotherapy expert, says that “aesthetic” procedures can be delayed while the U.S. continues to combat COVID-19’s spread. “I would say it’s okay to push that back until we have a little bit more clarity on the zero prevalence of the disease,” he says. In some instances “elective” procedures — mammograms, colonoscopies — can be postponed with a doctor’s permission.
If you have a medical or dental emergency, however, Nissola says do not wait. Delaying treatment can make the situation worse.
Similarly, there are non-emergency treatments that should not be put on hold. Here we’re talking about ongoing care where continuity is extremely important to your health. Nissola has seen cancer patients put off treatments as a result of COVID-19. “Cancer spares no one and cancer doesn’t wait,” he says.
Continued care is also essential for young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that newborns and children under the age of two continue to receive vaccinations and check-ups. The vaccines are important to prevent serious bacterial and viral infections, according to AAP.
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Communicate with your doctor
Your healthcare provider is an essential source of information since each patient’s needs are different. They also are on top of your region’s risk level and current medical guidelines.
Internist and RxSaver medical expert Holly Phillips, MD, says she has been working with her patients to determine whether or not a procedure is elective or necessary.
As a doctor in New York City, a COVID-19 hotspot, Phillips has told patients that if they have symptoms that warrant an emergency room visit, they should not delay seeking help. In terms of elective procedures, she’s following New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s mandate to delay in some areas while the state grapples with its outbreak.
In some instances, doctor’s appointments can be handled from the comfort of your home. Pre-coronavirus outbreak, telemedicine was rejected by many medical professionals and insurance companies alike. Now the rules have changed. For appointments that don’t require physical examination — getting a prescription refill, talking to a therapist — telemedicine is becoming standard.
Telemedicine doesn’t work for all types of appointments, however. “For patients who have new symptoms, it can be very hard to give good care via telemedicine,” says Phillips.
Follow the new rules of doctor’s visits
If you have to visit a doctor’s office, take precautions. “I would say to the degree that you can, definitely wear a mask, carry your hand sanitizer and keep your distance from other people,” Phillips says.
Many facilities have modified their in-office guidelines. You’ll find waiting areas designed to keep visitors six feet apart from each other. Masks and gloves will be required for patients and providers. Appointment times might be widely spaced apart so that there’s little overlap and time to sanitize areas between patients. And don’t be surprised if you’re not allowed to bring a companion to your appointment (unless necessary).
Be sure to ask about office visit procedures so you’re prepared. If you or a family member is experiencing a health emergency, try to have someone call ahead to the ER so they know you are coming and can tell you whether a visitor is allowed to be with the patient.
Consider the risk of infection in your area
Many places have significantly slowed the spread of the coronavirus. If you’re worried about getting sick during a doctor’s visit, see how your area stacks up on the map at Covid Act Now (covidactnow.org). The data analysis site by Stanford University and other institutions provides insights on the risk in your state based on four key indicators:
- Are new COVID-19 cases in your county increasing or decreasing?
- Are COVID-19 tests widely available to symptomatic and asymptomatic patients?
- Is your local hospital system overloaded or not?
- Does your local hospital system have the capacity to treat COVID-19 patients in the case of a surge?
For example, Mississippi is at “moderate risk based on reopening metrics,” with slowly increasing COVID-19 cases and a lack of widespread testing. Alaska, on the other hand, has decreasing COVID-19 cases and widespread testing.
Your doctor will be the best source of information to determine how best to treat you. Following the new safety rules put in place to keep patients safe will also greatly lessen any risks of seeing a physician.
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