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What Doctor Visits Can You Skip During COVID-19?

In-person doctors' visits during the COVID-19 pandemic

Lisa Maree Williams / Stringer / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • 48% of Americans have skipped medical care in the last three months
  • Primary care visits and elective procedures are largely safe to delay
  • Some non-emergencies, like prenatal appointments, are still essential
  • Some non-urgent medical facilities have begun soft openings with new safety protocols and office setups

If you've been avoiding the doctor's office because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows you're not alone.

The poll, published on May 27, found that 48% of American adults have skipped or postponed some type of medical care over the last three months.

Based on information gathered via phone interview from 1,189 adults across the country, the poll also shows that 11% of the people forgoing care feel their condition worsened over those three months.

There's a particular concern for people experiencing life-threatening issues like heart attacks, strokes, and severe infections unrelated to COVID-19 that require an emergency room visit. Because emergency departments and doctors' offices have been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, there's a natural apprehension to seek care and risk exposure.

Getting medical care right now means deciding whether to wait, get help immediately, or seek attention within a few months.

Why This Matters

Delayed medical care is a major consequence of COVID-19. While some doctors' appointments are safe to postpone, understanding what warrants emergency care and what non-emergencies still require treatment is essential to staying healthy.

Recognizing an Emergency 

Sometimes people just can’t delay getting seen by a health care provider. Certain medical problems don't get better without immediate medical or surgical interventions. Some key symptoms that call for immediate medical attention include:

  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing 
  • Changes in consciousness 
  • Convulsions 
  • Difficulty communicating 
  • Weakness of the face, arm, or leg 
  • Sudden vision changes 
  • A traumatic injury or a fall 
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Vomiting or coughing blood
  • Bleeding in the stool
  • Dental emergencies

Doctors are already reporting serious complications when patients put off medical care due to concerns about COVID-19. For example, a case study published in the Journal of Cardiac Surgery showed a two-day delay in seeking care for what turned out to be a heart attack caused one patient's condition to progress to a ventricular septal defect, or hole in the heart.

Hospitals in the U.S. are using guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to implement safety measures for patients and health care providers, ensuring non-COVID-19 emergency care is still an option. For example, if possible, patients may be screened in advance using patient portals, online self-assessment tools, or phone/video calls. Health care providers should be routinely screened for COVID-19 symptoms.

What Can You Delay?

Some doctor visits can be postponed until the pandemic flattens. According to the CDC, deferring the following types of appointments are very unlikely to cause patient harm:

  • Routine primary or specialty care
  • Care for well-controlled chronic conditions
  • Routine screening for asymptomatic conditions
  • Most elective surgeries and procedures

State-by-state guidelines differ when it comes to elective procedures. Regions that have been hard-hit by COVID-19 might implement different practices or be slower to reintroduce elective procedures than regions with fewer cases.

People who delay a procedure can take preliminary steps to prepare. These include discussing the risks, recovery process, and any preparatory measures that need to happen before the procedure. For example, patients getting ready for weight loss surgery can follow certain dietary recommendations. Patients preparing for orthopedic procedures can optimize their outcomes by doing prescribed exercises for a few months or weeks beforehand.

What Still Warrants Care?

Even problems that aren’t truly emergencies can become serious and damaging if put off for too long. The CDC encourages remote care or in-person care as soon as possible for the following conditions:

  • Pediatric vaccinations
  • Change in symptoms for chronic conditions
  • Musculoskeletal injury
  • Certain planned surgical repairs
  • Physical or occupational therapy

Pregnant women can't miss prenatal care and well-child visits are still essential for newborns.

It isn't yet clear whether postponing screening tests like mammograms and colonoscopies might result in a delay when it comes to detecting cancer at an early—and treatable—stage. Strategies to help get around this problem, like less invasive colon screening, are already starting to emerge.

How Will Doctors' Offices Reopen?

Many medical offices and facilities that offer non-urgent care are beginning their soft openings. But things won't look exactly like they did before the pandemic.

  • Patients may be asked to wait in the car instead of the waiting room and to sign paperwork electronically instead of in person.
  • Protective shields may be installed to keep patients and staff, like receptionists, safely separated.
  • Healthcare providers will wear a mask during patient visits and procedures
  • Patients may be asked to wear a mask

To reduce COVID-19 transmission risk, many doctors and hospitals have ramped up telehealth services, and health insurers have contracted with telehealth providers to help members get the care they need. 

Healthcare providers can talk to patients about their symptoms and help them monitor conditions or adjust treatment plans.

A Word From Verywell

There’s no way to know for sure when people will be able to freely go back to the doctor like they used to. In some ways, things may never be completely the same. Infection control, including protective measures like desk shields, will remain a bigger priority than before. And the convenience of telehealth is probably here to stay.

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Article Sources
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  1. Kaiser Family Foundation. KFF health tracking poll. May 27, 2020.

  2. Masroor S. Collateral damage of COVID-19 pandemic: Delayed medical care. J Card Surg. 2020;May 17.doi:10.1111/jocs.14638

  3. World Health Organization. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) technical guidance: Maintaining Essential Health Services and Systems. Updated May 6, 2020.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outpatient and Ambulatory Care Settings: Responding to Community Transmission of COVID-19 in the United States. Updated May 26, 2020.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Framework for Healthcare Systems Providing Non-COVID-19 Clinical Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic. May 12, 2020.

  6. Macleod C, Wilson P, Watson A. Colon capsule endoscopy: an innovative method for detecting colorectal pathology during the Covid-19 pandemic?. Colorectal Dis. 2020;May 13.doi:10.1111/codi.15134