Primary care: It’s safe and essential, especially amid COVID-19
At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak this spring, many patients were apprehensive about seeking in-person medical care. One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that ER visits dropped 42% early in the pandemic—not because people stopped needing emergency care, but because they were unwilling to go to the hospital.
Clearly, seeking emergency care if you need it is critically important—and so is seeing your primary care physician regularly.
To find out what patients need to know about primary care amid COVID-19, we spoke to AOA President Ronald Burns, DO, an osteopathic family medicine physician in Orlando, Florida, and Robert Greer IV, DO, an osteopathic family medicine physician in Lake Park, Florida. Here’s what they advise keeping in mind.
Office processes have been revamped for safety
Physician practices and hospitals have been quick to adopt the CDC’s guidance for health care facilities in the COVID-19 era. “In my office, we’ve rearranged our reception area so the patients are spaced six feet apart, and all surfaces that are touched frequently are sanitized between every appointment,” explains Dr. Burns. “If the patient wants to, they are also welcome to wait in their car and we’ll call them when it’s time to come in for their appointment.”
Telemedicine may be an option
Depending on the nature of the visit, telemedicine may also be an option—though patients should understand that this treatment modality is not always appropriate and some conversational nuances may be lost, Dr. Burns says.
Telemedicine typically involves both an audio and a video component, like a FaceTime or Zoom call, but there are also options that are purely telephone-based for patients who are less tech-savvy or lack reliable internet access.
Dr. Greer’s practice has embraced telemedicine, but in-person visits are also very much available. “As an osteopathic physician, I think it’s so important to make it clear to the community that we’re here for their care,” he says. “Whether it’s in person or via telemedicine, we are happy to see patients for whatever they need.”
Delaying primary care can be risky
Failing to get needed care in a timely manner can lead to serious health consequences, particularly for patients who have chronic conditions that require ongoing monitoring.
“Think of a diabetic patient who needs quarterly lab testing,” Dr. Burns explains. “If those visits to their primary care physician don’t happen, there’s a chance their condition could worsen and they could end up being admitted to the hospital, which is potentially a higher risk environment for contracting infections, including COVID-19.”
Primary care visits can also help physicians address mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, which are especially relevant now for both adults and adolescents. And for young children, visiting the pediatrician and getting vaccinations on schedule is critically important.
Contact your physician’s office
To learn more about how your physician’s office is responding to COVID-19 and what precautions are being taken, you may wish to contact them directly. For patients who are elderly or otherwise vulnerable to COVID-19, this is an especially good idea, as your primary care physician can offer individualized guidance on whether an in-person appointment or telemedicine appointment would be more appropriate.
If it’s been a while since you saw your primary care physician, some of the changes driven by COVID-19 may come as a pleasant surprise.
“If there is a silver lining to this situation, it’s that COVID-19 is allowing innovations like telemedicine to happen much faster,” says Dr. Greer. “That means now is a great time to find a physician who’s motivated and tech-savvy, if that’s important to you.”
Whatever you do to prepare, it’s essential to continue to make primary care a part of your health care routine. “Regular primary care visits are a needed intervention to maintain your health,” says Dr. Burns. “Right now, that’s more important than ever, because the healthier you are, the better position you’re in to fight COVID-19 if necessary.”