As COVID-19 cases continue to be elevated around the country, people may be considering skipping visits to the doctor to reduce risk of exposure to the virus. But the decision to delay preventive screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies, along with annual wellness visits, could have serious health consequences, particularly for older adults.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40 percent of adults delayed or avoided medical care due to COVID-19-related concerns in the early months of the pandemic. This included a third of people who report avoiding routine annual exams. In New York state, more than 3.7 million people said they had delayed medical care in the prior four weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic.
At UnitedHealthcare, our data show insurance claims for mammograms dropped by as much as 95 percent last April. More broadly, we’ve seen 1 million fewer screenings this year for breast, colorectal, and cervical cancer than we would expect among our Medicare Advantage members. A study by Quest Diagnostics found the number of diagnoses for six types of cancer dropped 46 percent this year.
Illustrating the staggering consequences of missed or delayed care, the National Cancer Institute predicted that delayed screenings could lead to 10,000 additional deaths from breast and colorectal cancer alone over the next decade. And the CDC notes that, people with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease are dying at 12 times the rate of the rest of the population because they’re avoiding care out of fear of catching COVID-19 at their doctor’s office.
This mirrors a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found deaths in the United States were 20 percent higher than expected last March and April, but just two-thirds of these deaths were attributed to COVID-19. The remaining deaths were likely the result of patients not getting the care they need for heart disease or other health conditions.
Fortunately, in the months since the pandemic struck, we have learned many lessons and gained valuable insights in how to best keep ourselves and our environments safe and healthy. Health providers and clinics have responded by making modifications to the way offices look and function. This often means deliberate social distancing, mandatory masks indoors, smart scheduling, and limiting the number of people in waiting rooms. Many ask patients to fill out necessary forms at home, then wait in their car until their appointment time to avoid the waiting room altogether. When certain screenings, tests, or vaccinations are needed, some clinics are offering drive-thru care.
And alternative options to in-person appointments continue to gain popularity. Many providers now offer and encourage appointments and annual wellness visits through telehealth, allowing patients to meet with their doctor from the safety and convenience of their home. Vulnerable or seriously ill patients may be eligible for remote disease-management services. Most UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members can take advantage of a yearly visit with a licensed practitioner from the comfort of home.
Continue to call 911 when serious symptoms like chest pain strike. And ask your doctor or health-insurance plan about telehealth, home monitoring, and other virtual-care options that may be available to you.
COVID-19 is a serious illness, and it likely will be years before we know the full impact of the pandemic on our nation’s health. As we work to save lives, keep ourselves safe and prevent the virus from spreading, we also must ensure we aren’t adding to its toll through delayed care and missed diagnoses. Take care of yourself by seeking needed care — safely — today.
Dr. Steven Angelo is the regional chief medical officer, overseeing New York for UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement.