COVID-19 disrupted nearly every part of regular life this year. People were asked to stay home from work and school. Professional sports leagues canceled seasons. Restaurants closed dining rooms.
Health care was no exception. In-person visits for non-urgent care were halted. Providers needed to reduce the risk of spreading the new coronavirus in their facilities. They also needed to reserve staff, space and supplies for an expected wave of COVID-19 patients. These were reasonable and important steps as the health care system responded to a rapidly changing crisis.
But non-urgent doesn’t mean unnecessary. Many of these canceled visits were for care and screenings that are medically necessary and critical for maintaining wellness and long-term health.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois has launched a public awareness campaign to get the word out that people should reach out to their doctors and explore options for safely catching up on missed cancer screenings, important immunizations and checkups. The message is, “Wellness Can’t Wait.”
“People should not have to choose between early detection and treatment of cancer and remaining safe from COVID-19,” says Derek Robinson, M.D., vice president and chief medical officer for BCBSIL. “We have reached a point in pandemic response where most doctors have resumed in-person visits for their patients as they work diligently to ensure the long-term health and wellness of their patients.”
Derek Robinson M.D.
BCBSIL member visits for colonoscopies, mammograms, Pap tests, childhood immunizations and general checkups dropped sharply after the governor declared a state of emergency and issued a -shelter-in-place orders, according to an analysis of commercial PPO claims.
Emergency room visits plunged nationally in the weeks after U.S. health officials declared a national health emergency. Some research suggests people were avoiding hospitals even when they were experiencing serious health events like heart attacks, strokes and appendicitis.
“If you are experiencing symptoms like chest pain or pressure, difficulty breathing, nausea, pain in an arm or your jaw, you should be concerned about a possible heart attack,” says Robinson, who is also an emergency physician. "Likewise, if you or a loved one experiences drooping of one side of the face, weakness in an arm or leg, or difficulty speaking, you should be concerned about a possible stroke. Both are time sensitive and life-threatening conditions — you should call 911 for emergency care and know that with safety precautions hospitals can treat you during the pandemic.”
The crisis appears far from over in Illinois. With the benefit of time and experience, however, many health care providers have taken steps allowing them to deliver care while minimizing the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Many also ramped up capabilities to see patients remotely with telehealth platforms.
People who have canceled or missed appointments because of COVID-19 — especially those with chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart failure, can:
- Contact an in-network provider to find out about safe options for resuming care
- Ask what steps the provider is taking to protect patients, such as cleaning procedures, separate entries and exits and employee temperature checks
- Ask what steps they can take themselves when they visit, such as wearing a mask and arriving on time to avoid unnecessary time in the waiting room
- Find out if telehealth is an option – both with your provider and benefits
Beginning in March, BCBSIL took action to help members maintain access to medical and behavioral health care during the pandemic. This included expanding coverage and lifting cost-sharing requirements for telehealth services and available telehealth benefits.
The good news is that many people have resumed getting needed medically necessary care. Outpatient visits across the U.S. started rebounding in April and climbed until mid-June – holding firm at about 10% below the pre-pandemic level, according Harvard University researchers and the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund.
BCBSIL data shows a similar trend. Members are resuming care, but the totals over the duration of the crisis suggests significant gaps. Visits for mammograms, for example, were down 36% among commercial PPO members from March 1 to July 31 compared with the same period last year. Immunizations for children age 2 and older were down 27%.
The Care Van® program, sponsored by BCBSIL, is working with public health agencies to help boost the rate of childhood immunizations — which are often required for school registration (even with remote learning) and to avoid the contraction and spread of communicable diseases.
Robinson, meanwhile, says it’s critical for Illinoisans to continue to take recommended precautions so providers can keep delivering routine care amid the pandemic. “Health care facilities are here and available and ready to take care of patients — and to do so as safely as possible,” he says. “But only as long as we're all doing our part, we're wearing our masks and we're keeping the curve flat.”