More than 100,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. Beyond those deaths are other casualties of the pandemic — Americans seriously ill with other ailments who avoided care because they feared contracting the coronavirus at hospitals and clinics.
The toll from their deaths may be close to the toll from Covid-19. The trends are clear and concerning. Government orders to shelter in place and health care leaders’ decisions to defer nonessential care successfully prevented the spread of the virus. But these policies — complicated by the loss of employer-provided health insurance as people lost their jobs — have had the unintended effect of delaying care for some of our sickest patients.
To prevent further harm, people with serious, complex and acute illnesses must now return to the doctor for care.
Across the country, we have seen sizable decreases in new cancer diagnoses (45 percent) and reports of heart attacks (38 percent) and strokes (30 percent). Visits to hospital emergency departments are down by as much as 40 percent, but measures of how sick emergency department patients are have risen by 20 percent, according to a Mayo Clinic study, suggesting how harmful the delay can be. Meanwhile, non-Covid-19 out-of-hospital deaths have increased, while in-hospital mortality has declined.
These statistics demonstrate that people with cancer are missing necessary screenings, and those with heart attack or stroke symptoms are staying home during the precious window of time when the damage is reversible. In fact, a recent poll by the American College of Emergency Physicians and Morning Consult found that 80 percent of Americans say they are concerned about contracting the coronavirus from visiting the emergency room.
Unfortunately, we’ve witnessed grievous outcomes as a result of these delays. Recently, a middle-aged patient with abdominal pain waited five days to come to a Mayo Clinic emergency department for help, before dying of a bowel obstruction. Similarly, a young woman delayed care for weeks out of a fear of Covid-19 before she was transferred to a Cleveland Clinic intensive care unit with undiagnosed leukemia. She died within weeks of her symptoms appearing. Both deaths were preventable.
The true cost of this epidemic will not be measured in dollars; it will be measured in human lives and human suffering. In the case of cancer alone, our calculations show we can expect a quarter of a million additional preventable deaths annually if normal care does not resume. Outcomes will be similar for those who forgo treatment for heart attacks and strokes.
Over the past 12 weeks, hospitals deferred nonessential care to prevent viral spread, conserve much-needed personal protective equipment and create capacity for an expected surge of Covid-19 patients. During that time, we also have adopted methods to care for all patients safely, including standard daily screenings for the staff and masking protocols for patients and the staff in the hospital and clinic. At this point, we are gradually returning to normal activities while also mitigating risk for both patients and staff members.
The Covid-19 crisis has changed the practice of medicine in fundamental ways in just a matter of months. Telemedicine, for instance, allowed us to pivot quickly from in-person care to virtual care. We have continued to provide necessary care to our patients while promoting social distancing, reducing the risk of viral spread and recognizing patients’ fears.
Both Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic have gone from providing thousands of virtual visits per month before the pandemic to hundreds of thousands now across a broad range of demographics and conditions. At Cleveland Clinic, 94 percent of diabetes patients were cared for virtually in April.
While virtual visits are here to stay, there are obvious limitations. There is no substitute for in-person care for those who are severely ill or require early interventions for life-threatening conditions. Those are the ones who — even in the midst of this pandemic — must seek the care they need.
Patients who need care at a clinic or hospital or doctor’s office should know they have reduced the risk of Covid-19 through proven infection-control precautions under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We’re taking unprecedented actions, such as restricting visiting hours, screening patient and caregiver temperatures at entrances, encouraging employees to work from home whenever possible, providing spaces that allow for social distancing, and requiring proper hand hygiene, cough etiquette and masking.
All of these strategies are intended to significantly reduce risk while allowing for vital, high-quality care for our patients.
The novel coronavirus will not go away soon, but its systemic side effects of fear and deferred care must.
We will continue to give vigilant attention to Covid-19 while urgently addressing the other deadly diseases that haven’t taken a pause during the pandemic. For patients with medical conditions that require in-person care, please allow us to safely care for you — do not delay. Lives depend on it.
Tomislav Mihaljevic is the chief executive and president of the Cleveland Clinic. Gianrico Farrugia is chief executive and president of the Mayo Clinic.
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