By DR. GRAHAM A. COLDITZ
Siteman Cancer Center
After a few months that felt like summer, we’re heading into a fall that will be different than most of us imagined. The coronavirus outbreak continues to impact our daily lives – and, unfortunately, will likely do so for a while.
So, as we keep up our efforts to stay safe from COVID-19, it’s important that we not forget to look after other aspects of our health as well. This means keeping up with things like exercising, eating healthy food, connecting (virtually) with friends and getting enough sleep. It also means getting back on track with any medical care we’ve missed.
Since the coronavirus outbreak took hold in the U.S., there’s been a major drop in the number of people getting cancer screenings, vaccinations and other key care.
That’s not surprising, of course. In March and April, doctors’ offices and hospitals across the country stopped or limited non-essential care to curb spread of the virus and to prepare to treat infected patients. At the same time, many people have avoided appointments to try to reduce their risk of infection. And, now, with new spikes in COVID-19 in parts of the country, we’re seeing some variations of this play out again.
SCREENINGS, VACCINATIONS AND CHECK-UPS
Yet, we know that missing regular medical care can impact health, especially the longer it’s delayed. Skipped cancer screenings can lead to the disease being diagnosed later, when it’s harder to treat. Missed vaccinations can make children and adults more susceptible to serious infectious diseases. And delayed follow-up for chronic conditions like unhealthy blood cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
“It’s important to make sure you still get recommended cancer screenings, even during the pandemic,” said Dr. Jean Wang, professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Taking action now to prevent cancer and other serious illnesses will help keep you much safer and healthier in the long run.”
The specifics of doing that, though, can vary from person to person and from region to region, depending on the status of the COVID-19 outbreak and the capacity of facilities to see patients.
DEVELOP A PLAN WITH YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER
The best approach is to contact your health-care providers and, together, discuss plans for safely getting back on track with the care you need. This may mean scheduling in-person appointments, meeting remotely through telehealth, or checking back with them sometime in the near future.
Importantly, any urgent concern about your health should be addressed immediately. “If you are having symptoms, do not delay getting care,” Wang said. “Since hospitals have adapted to the coronavirus epidemic by taking necessary precautions, it is very safe to come in to get evaluated.”
HELP WITH COSTS
If cost of care is an issue because of a lost job, lost health insurance or other reason, some resources may help. Healthcare.gov has information about eligibility for Medicaid or health plan enrollment. Another option, Wang adds, includes federally qualified health clinics, “which are available all across the country to care for people regardless of their ability to pay or their insurance status.” Contact your providers, hospital or local health department, or visit findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov, for additional information on accessing care.
While much of our focus remains on combating the coronavirus outbreak, let’s not lose sight of the important goal to stay healthy overall. Cancer screenings and regular medical appointments can be an essential part of that. So, for ourselves and our families, it’s a good time to make a plan to get back on track.
It’s your – and your family’s – health. Stay in control.
(Dr. Graham A. Colditz, an epidemiologist and public health expert, is associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention.)