Doctors are concerned that people are postponing vital medical care out of fear that they could contract the coronavirus in medical offices, clinics, and hospitals.
Many states, such as Texas and Florida, have canceled elective procedures again due to a spike in the number of new coronavirus cases. But experts warn that many lives may be lost if people don’t seek medical care for serious ailments such as cancer and heart disease, adding that these conditions could kill a whole lot more Americans than COVID-19.
According to The Washington Post, Dr. Peter Shields, deputy director of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, said, “Some patients are afraid to come in.” He added that the hospital has run advertisements to reassure patients that it’s safe to start or resume treatments.
Screening tests for some types of cancer fell by up to 94% when the pandemic began but are now running 20% to 30% below the normal level, according to the Post.
According to a recent analysis, deaths from heart problems rose 27% over historical averages in five hard-hit states and New York City during the months of March, April, and May. Experts said that many patients suffering from serious conditions died as a result of delaying or not seeking medical care.
In a separate study, researchers found that nearly one-third of excess deaths in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis in the United States were linked to causes other than COVID-19, but may have been linked to the disease indirectly.
“We’re quite concerned about indirect mortality — deaths caused by the response to the pandemic,” said Dr. Steven Wolf, director emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, and the co-author of that study. “People who never had the virus may have died from other causes because of the spillover effects of the pandemic such as delayed medical care, economic hardship, or emotional distress.”
Even those who did seek emergency care may not have been able to get the treatment they needed if the hospital was overwhelmed, said Wolf, adding that besides heart patients, the pandemic may have contributed to deaths from cancer and diabetes.
In an article published in Science, Dr. Norman Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), wrote, “fear of contracting the coronavirus in healthcare settings has dissuaded people from screening, diagnosis, and treatment for non-COVID-19 diseases. The consequences for cancer outcomes, for example, could be substantial.”
According to the Post, the situation may again spiral out of control now that the numbers are rising.
“Cancer is going to kill a lot more people this year than COVID-19 did — by a lot,” Benjamin Neel, director of the Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Health, told the Post. “You’d have to be crazy not to go see your doctor.”
COVID-19 has so far killed almost 140,000 Americans. The expected number of deaths this year from heart disease is 650,000 and 600,000 from cancer.
Hospitals have revamped some of their protocols to ensure the safety of both patients and staff. The Henry Ford Health System, for example, has done away with waiting rooms and implemented a “just-in-time” system, with paperwork completed online or in the examination rooms. It also has a priority system, fast-tracking patients who need chemotherapy or have heart blockages.
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