With nearly everything closed ― schools, public buildings, bars, restaurants and beyond ― the country is being told to limit outings to essential errands only.
But do doctors’ appointments count as essential? Some appointments ― like a weekly massage or perhaps a dental cleaning ― you may be able to postpone, but what about vital screenings or monthly checkups for health conditions?
We chatted with some experts to bring you this guide on what appointments to keep, what to cancel, and how to safely go to the necessary ones in the time of the coronavirus pandemic:
Do not go to any routine appointment in the next month, like physicals and dental cleanings.
The whole point of the recent guidelines is to practice distancing ― “aka keeping five to six feet away from other individuals” at all times in the hopes of curbing the spread of the coronavirus, said Adam Rosh, an emergency room physician in Detroit and the founder and CEO of Rosh Review.
A crucial part of this is to only go out in public when it’s absolutely necessary. And this applies to appointments with medical professionals and beyond.
“If it’s anything routine, do not go,” Rosh said, adding that visits like physicals, colonoscopies or any other checkups “can maybe wait a few months ― usually you have a year or within several years to do any appointments like that.”
Dental appointments should also be postponed, said Inna Chern, a dentist in New York City. She added that the American Dental Association has compelled dental offices to close for nonemergency treatment.
“I have closed my office to respect the guidelines of helping slow the spread of this disease,” she said.
Things like manicures, pedicures, hair appointments, and routine eye exams can also wait, Rosh said. And unless your pet is “very ill,” avoid the veterinarian’s office for the time being as well.
Elective procedures should also be postponed.
Some cities and states have already canceled elective surgeries in light of the outbreak. If you’re planning to go to a doctor’s office for an elective inpatient procedure of any kind, chances are you shouldn’t go to that either for the time being.
This is so health care workers have more medical supplies to use, Rosh said.
“Health care workers doing these procedures will use masks, gloves, other types of equipment that are in such short supply right now,” he said, adding that there is a major shortage of masks and all of the existing masks and personal protective equipment should be diverted to the frontline workers.
“This is like wartime where we need to ration resources and move them where they need to go,” he added. “Our hospitals and ERs are just starting to see cases roll in; the growth of the cases is going to continue to exponentially expand and our ICUs will be overwhelmed very soon.”
Trips to the pharmacy should also be taken with caution.
Say you left your birth control at your place and you’re isolating elsewhere, or you didn’t realize how low you were on your blood pressure medication. Call ahead and check if the pharmacy is open and make sure that they have it in stock.
“If so, ask what precautions you should take,” said Henry Hackney, a Rocklin, Illinois-based dentist and content director at Authority Dental. Upon arrival, he said to stand six feet away from other customers. You should also try to pay by credit card or phone if possible. Also, refrain from touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, and disinfect or wash your hands thoroughly once you leave.
Exceptions include intense pain or severe onset issues.
Ross said you should see a physician if you have something that is extremely urgent like “acute onset blindness” that requires the attention of an ophthalmologist or “a toothache that you cannot tolerate” that may need a dentist.
If you have regular cancer or addiction treatment appointments, you may be able to go — but adjustments will likely be made.
Those in treatment for addiction or in a recovery center of course may also continue their treatments, but might have to alter the modality slightly. Recovery centers are working hard to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, so those that are currently in live-in treatment centers should stay unless otherwise advised by the treatment center, explained Sarah Johnson, chief medical officer at Landmark Recovery.
“Many outpatient programs have found ways to deliver care via telehealth or other modalities aligned with social distancing,” she said, noting that hundreds of AA meetings around the world are available online through its website. “And many sponsors are able to meet in-person with their sponsees who need extra support as long as everyone is well and practicing preventive measures.”
Patients who are undergoing cancer treatments should discuss their follow-up options with their physicians before going in, said Joshua Mansour, a hematologist and oncologist in Los Angeles. Each case is specific to that particular patient.
“A few situations where a patient should be seen in the clinic is if they are currently on active treatment receiving chemotherapy, have lab abnormalities that need to be followed, or are symptomatic in any way,” Mansour said.
Why routine appointments put you at risk.
Rosh said appointments come with having to sit in a waiting room and that increases your risk for exposure.
“There are people in the room that will be coughing, transmitting infection. You just want to avoid that,” he said. Even asymptomatic people can still spread the virus.
Chern noted that while health care offices tend to be cleaner than average public spaces, the issue could often be commuting and other areas of the building.
“The commute often involves public places or public transportation,” she said, which can expose you to possible infection. The other issue can be touching door handles, cramming into elevators with lots of patients, and having to sign in with pens that many people have been handling.
What you should do if you still want to get in touch with your doctor.
During this time of coronavirus panic, many doctors’ offices are now allowing patients to honor appointments that they don’t want to cancel via telemedicine.
“In my practice, we have instituted virtual appointments using HIPAA-compliant software to make it safer for patients to get their concerns addressed,” said Gary Linkov, a New York City-based based facial plastic surgeon.
Therapists are doing appointments with patients via virtual platforms, Skype or FaceTime. Even dentists and doctors are offering virtual consultations. If you have a question for your general practitioner, you can also call their office and ask if they have telehealth options or ask to speak with them on the phone.
If your physician’s office is closed and isn’t picking up the phone, or if they don’t provide a telehealth service, there are additional steps that you can take to connect. Rodney Rohde, a professor and chair with the clinical laboratory science program at Texas State College of Health Professions, said to check if your doctor has an online portal and ask questions through the site.
Other companies, like Small Door Veterinary, are providing a 24/7 open line of communication with vets through their app, which allows pet parents to contact and receive a response from a member of the medical team, access medical information, refill prescriptions and schedule a virtual consultation.
Ask your office what types of services like this that they have in place, as many are implementing them now in the face of coronavirus-driven closures.
If you have to be seen in person, ask your doctor’s office what safety measures you can take.
Some practices are currently open at limited capacity with altered protocols.
“We have patients checking in from the parking lot to not wait in the waiting room,” said Erum Ilyas, a health care provider at Montgomery Dermatology, LLC in Prussia, Pennsylvania. “We have patients go straight back to a room and have no staff interaction. We only have our doctors wearing personal protective equipment in the exam room to address the patient’s needs and check out in the room before leaving.”
And Women’s Care of Beverly Hills Medical Group in Los Angeles, which must remain open to see people who are pregnant, is having every person who enters the waiting room use hand sanitizer before coming in, and has limited the amount of guests that can attend an appointment to one.
The bottom line is we need to take all the necessary precautions to control the spread of the virus ― and staying away from non-emergency appointments is a huge step in that direction.
“The more we can physically distance ourselves and stay at home, the faster this is going to resolve itself,” Rosh said. “Everything we do today is going to impact how we live in three months.”