HOUSTON – Doctors across the country are now seeing more patients who chose to avoid hospitals during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They say this is causing a backlog of patients, many of whom are showing more serious health issues due to the lack of care during that period.
Among them is Nalinthip Fetters, who recently found out she had a hole in her heart. She was supposed to get regular checkups but she, like many others, had steered clear of the hospital.
“The pandemic happened and I just stopped. I didn’t want to deal with it because it was, like, COVID was going around,” Fetters said. “I was so scared.”
Dr. Carlos Encarnacion, a cardiovascular surgeon for Houston Heart at HCA Houston Healthcare, said he’d seen significantly fewer regular checkups during the pandemic.
“From my patients’ experience, a lot of them have forgone their PCP or primary care physician visits,” Encarnacion explained.In Fetters’ case, the neglected health care forced him to perform emergency triple bypass surgery. “Had she waited longer than she did, then she potentially would’ve gone into a heart failure.”
According to the American Heart Association, during the first year of the pandemic, the overall risk for dying from heart disease rose to just over 4%, and the risk of dying from a stroke also rose over 6%.
Dr. T. Douglas Lawson, the president of the board for the American Heart Association’s Houston Division, said research showed this was a direct result of neglecting health care checkups during the pandemic. “People are coming in later for screening cancers, and those cancers are more advanced. People are coming in later for control of their blood pressure. And, that’s creating more advanced heart disease that we’re now working to correct.”
Encarnacion added that this game of “catch up” has been challenging the health care system. “Overall, I would say that with the amount of influx of patients back into the system, back into health care and the strained health care workforce, together is creating a little bit of a backlog.”
Hospitals across the country and medical organizations such as the American Heart Association have been working to clear this patient backlog and prevent it in the future.
“We’ve had to work really hard to show people that hospitals and clinics are safe. That we’re there to help them, and we need people to continue to see their doctors,” Lawson said.
Doctors and the American Heart Association also reported that virtual doctor’s visits have helped clear this backlog. They recommend such visits to anyone who’s hesitant about visiting a hospital in person.