BUTTE, Mont. — 32% of adults put off their annual health exams after the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control. Now, people are slowly starting to get back to their routines, however -- doctors are noting the number isn't high enough, causing them to plead with the public to come back in before minor issues get worse.
"The earlier we catch things, the easier it is to take care of them and treat them," said Dr. Jennifer Davenport, chief medical officer at St. James Healthcare, noting that they are only at 65% to 70% at their normal numbers. "Cancers caught early are often curable but when they’re caught late sometimes there not. So, we really want people to come in as soon as they can and make sure that they're maintaining their preventative care appointments and taking care of themselves.”
Davenport noted that people are often not coming to the hospital even in cases of emergencies. CDC reports that 12% of adults in the United States avoided going into the hospital even though emergency services were necessary.
"We've noticed in multiple hospital systems that patients are waiting until the very last minute to come in for even symptoms of a heart attack because they don't want to overwhelm the hospital," said Davenport. "They sort of put it off and put it off and put it off and then it's too late."
Kristy Marynak worked on the statistics around those avoiding their annual health care routine due to COVID-19 and found that specific groups were more likely to avoid going.
"For (unpaid) caregivers who reported caring for adults at increased risk for severe COVID-19, concern about the exposure of care recipients might be a factor contributing to their avoidance of care," wrote Marynak. "People with underlying medical conditions that increase their risk for severe COVID-19, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease, are more likely to need care to monitor and treat these conditions, potentially contributing to their more frequent report of avoidance."
Marynak continued to explain her findings, noting that adults with disabilities may struggle to access medical services due to a lack of essential support services, lack of transport, reduced communication and risk of exposure.
"Hispanic adults and Black adults were significantly more likely to have delayed or avoided urgent and emergency care than white adults, which is concerning because Black and Hispanic adults also experience higher death rates due to COVID-19," Marynak wrote. "There are long-standing inequities that influence racial and ethnic disparities in health care utilization and access that communities, health systems, and public health agencies must work together to address moving forward."
But doctors' appointments aren't the only health check-ups avoided once the COVID-19 pandemic started. Dentists also saw a decrease in patients that led to more severe cases down when they finally came in.
"We do see patients who canceled appointments initially or they come back and say, "I'm sorry because I've been afraid to go outside" and we do see more in-depth decay," said Dr. Troy Flowers, Doctor of Dental Surgery and owner of Elevation Dental in Butte. "We find a lot more people wait until they’re in pain to call us and at that point, that treatment is much more in-depth, it's more expensive and more time in the chair.”
Flowers said their overall concern is the possible loss of function if patients continue to put off their annual exams, noting that tooth decay can deteriorate quickly to the point of becoming septic.
"We're concerned," said Flowers. "We don't want to experience a loss if you want to catch those problems while they're small."
Both doctors and dentists are urging those who have yet to come to schedule an appointment. While there are Telehealth services, Davenport said this is not enough when it comes to things like mammograms or colonoscopies. But public concerns, and mentalities, are outweighing these basic health necessities.
"Everybody's concerned about COVID and it's been the thing that we're talking about, that we fail to sort of continue talking about the future colonoscopy because it's recommended or go get your mammogram because that was recommended," said Davenport. "People just sort of forget, because it's easy to forget if you're not going to see your doctor on an annual basis like you're supposed to.”
Most appointments now are scheduled a few weeks out, due to people slowly starting to make appointments but all professionals still agree -- it's not enough.
Vaccines are helping people want to come back in, noted Flowers, but we're concerned that if you put off your appointment for longer than a year, we will see decay and risk of a deeper infection.