When is it safe to return to the doctor during covid-19?
In early March, I received two calls from separate doctors’ offices. Both receptionists let me know that my upcoming appointments were canceled because of COVID-19. One visit was for an annual checkup. The other was for a dental cleaning.
Now that North Carolina is re-opening, I’ve been wondering whether I should resume my in-person appointments. Is it safe to do so?
To make an informed decision, I reached out to Dr. Vandana Devalapalli. She’s an associate medical director at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC).
She shared a few tips for deciding whether and when to resume in-person care.
Determining your specific health care needs
When deciding when to seek care at the doctor’s office, you’ll need to consider your personal health history. You’ll also want to consider the type of visit.
Below are a few common reasons to visit the doctor, along with Dr. Devalapalli’s recommendations.
Newborns and infants should continue with their scheduled vaccinations. Dr. Devalapalli encourages parents not to delay these visits. On-time vaccinations protect against health complications and prevent the spread of life-threatening illnesses.
Specific vaccinations for adults, such as shingles, may be delayed for patients without underlying conditions. But patients who live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities – where the risk of spread is higher – should prioritize this type of vaccination.
Follow-up for chronic conditions and other routine visits
Routine medical care includes regular checkups, health screenings and physicals. Some routine appointments can be done by phone or video. Call your doctor to see if a telehealth visit would work for you.
Preventive care and services
“Preventive care” refers to tests that prevent and screen for disease. Mammograms, pap tests, and colorectal cancer screenings are examples of preventive care.
When deciding whether to delay these appointments, consider your health history. For example, a woman’s decision to go for a screening may depend on her age, the results of previous mammograms, and her family’s history of breast cancer.
No matter what, Dr. Devalapalli recommends that that individuals talk to their doctor before delaying preventive screenings.
Acute, or diagnostic, care refers to care that you receive to address symptoms or worrisome changes in your health. For example, if someone is experiencing stomach pain or chest pain, the type of care he or she receives will be considered “acute.”
This type of care is a high priority for everyone. At times, acute care uses some of the same tests and screenings as listed above under “preventive care” (colonoscopies, mammograms, etc.). For example, if a woman feels a lump in her breast, the mammogram would fall under acute care (rather than a routine or screening mammogram).
Safety at the Doctor’s Office
Right now, all health care practices should follow recommendations from North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Some of the safety measures provider practices should follow include:
- Triaging patients before arrival to the doctor’s office. This means that a staff member asks the patient questions to determine the patient’s possibility of COVID-19 exposure and infection. From there, the practice can determine whether to allow the patient inside or direct a patient with possible COVID-19 to a separate entrance or testing center.
- Wearing masks. Patients, providers and staff should wear face coverings. Face coverings help prevent people with or without symptoms from infecting others.
- Social distancing. Physical distancing of at least 6 feet from other patients is recommended while waiting for the doctor. Waiting rooms should allow for 6 feet of physical distancing. However, many offices have done away with the “waiting room” concept. Instead, clients are asked to remain outside until the doctor is ready to see the individual.
- Providing hygienic supplies. The office should be stocked with hygienic supplies such as ready-access to hand washing and hand sanitizer.
- Staggering patient appointments. By allowing for more time between appointments, the medical team can change personal protective equipment (PPE) and wipe down equipment and seating areas. Spacing out appointments also prevents patients from coming into close contact with each other.
These measures may add peace of mind when going to in-person appointments.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the changes your doctor’s office has made to address safety, call the office before visiting.
Should I or shouldn’t I?
Preventive care and ongoing health needs are important. Dr. Devalapalli recommends that you call your primary care doctor for guidance on the services you may or may not need.
These services may include vaccinations (especially for a child) or assistance in managing chronic conditions. If you do need to go in-person, ask the clinic staff to explain the measures they’re taking to keep you safe.
For visits that can be done virtually, Blue Cross NC is covering doctor visits by video or phone the same as face-to-face visits according to your health plan through December 31, 2020.