In June 2020, healthcare providers from across the region came together in Johnson City to warn people against delaying needed care and routine health screenings because of the pandemic.
For some of the people who didn’t hear that warning, the consequences have been profound.
“I would say, you know, routine cancer screenings, age appropriate, have been shown to definitely reduce the risk of severe illness if you can catch it early,” said Dr. Kevin Metzger, a primary care doctor with Holston Medical Group. “In the last, I guess, probably six months, people have started getting their routine screenings again, and it’s resulted in some pretty significant surgery.
“Everybody is doing OK, but potentially (the impact) could have been limited by screening, gosh, a year-and-a-half ago when people just weren’t out and about,” Metzger continued.
In addition to more advanced stage cancers, Metzger said they’ve seen more people diagnosed with obesity and other related conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Metzger is one of many doctors nationwide still pleading with people to return for routine medical care to avoid more advanced disease that can be more difficult to control and treat.
“Please just find somebody you connect with that will provide excellent care for you and your family, that will provide evidence-based screenings, so that we really can hopefully prevent or catch at an early stage any of these significant diagnoses: cancer, diabetes, lung problems,” Metzger said.
In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, Ballad Health officials reported a significant reduction in the number of emergency room visits, and have warned against delayed healthcare numerous times throughout the pandemic.
Ballad’s Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift told the Press in February that routine screenings remain extremely important, especially with emergency rooms already seeing longer wait times for patients because of the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19.
While hospitals are no longer flooded with coronavirus patients like they were during the height of the omicron surge, patient levels remain high with 198 people being treated for COVID-19 in Ballad hospitals as of Friday.
“Yes, we’re in a pandemic, but all of our other diseases haven’t gone away,” Swift said. “People do need to keep those medical appointments, have those annual screenings.”
Dr. David Moulton, State of Franklin Healthcare Associates’ medical director of quality, said visits to their offices declined by more than 50% in the early months of the pandemic, but those numbers returned to closer to normal last year. Moulton said that in May 2020 they reached out to patients with chronic, complex conditions who had not yet been seen to arrange either an office visit or telehealth appointment to ensure they stayed on top of their conditions.
“In 2020 the number of patients showing up at the hospital with extreme situations was greater, and I know personally I had patients that died at home,” Moulton said. “This was really a serious situation in 2020.”
One thing patients are still behind on are cancer screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies, but they expected to see the number of people getting those screenings increase this year, a return to normal that began in the second half of 2021. Still, there is concern for those who may have been healthy prior to the pandemic but developed serious conditions or are on the way to developing them.
“We’re all concerned about that,” Moulton said. “That’s somebody who has been relatively well, but over the last two years, you know, there’s signs that they’re not well, that because they’re not coming in, it’s not picked up.”
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