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Is It Too Risky to Visit Your Doctor?

May 14, 2020
By Anne de Schweinitz

The direct health impact of COVID-19 is flashed in front of us every day in the staggering numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths recorded around the globe. But the indirect impact of the pandemic due to the massive disruption in the healthcare delivery system – the cancelled surgeries, delayed appointments and undiagnosed illness – will only be fully revealed over time. Sadly, it’s likely to tell another tragic story.

Results from a new study of primary care doctors in the U.S. released by the Primary Care Collaborative (PCC) shows that 60% believe that some of their patients will experience avoidable illness, and 38% believe there will be non-COVID-19 related deaths among their patients after the pandemic ends due to diverted or avoided care.

As health systems quickly pivoted to COVID-19 triage, doctors’ offices closed and elective, non-emergency procedures were postponed – the whole system turned its attention to the critical issue at hand. But what happens when the acute phase of the virus response recedes? Will patients quickly come back?

The PCC study shows that many clinicians fear that patients’ trust in the healthcare system is eroding. A quarter of respondents say that they anticipate the pandemic will result in “a broken sense of trust between the public and the medical world.” Are these doctors right? Will people feel it’s just too risky to visit hospitals and clinics – the “ground zero” of the COVID-19 crisis?

A FleishmanHillard TRUE Global Intelligence study of 600 U.S. consumers fielded May 3-4 backs up the concerns of physicians showing that a majority of consumers would not feel safe getting any type of medical treatment in the next 3 to 6 months. It showed that 76% do not feel safe having elective surgery at an outpatient facility; 73% don’t feel safe visiting their dentist; and 66% say the same about visiting their primary physician. Notably, women and those over 60 feel the least safe in accessing care.

It’s clearly going to take a lot of reassurance to convince us that the very places we used to view as places to get well are safe enough to set foot in again.

How will we know when it is safe to get care? Who will we trust to tell us? What signs and signals will we be looking for to reassure us that necessary precautions for our safety have been put in place? The results of the TRUE Global Intelligence study give us some helpful clues:

  • Consumers want simple ways to be assured that it is safe to return to healthcare settings. Of those surveyed, 80% say they “do not feel that there are clear signs or signals that tell patients that it is now completely safe to go to a hospital or any other medical facility unless it is an emergency.”
  • They want to hear information about the safety of electively returning to healthcare facilities directly from their physicians (60%), top infectious disease experts (48%) and local CDC officials (43%).
  • And they want tangible signals and signs that every precaution is being taken to make a medical visit safe. Sixty percent want confirmation that hospital/outpatient staff is being routinely tested for COVID-19. They want to hear directly from a physician that social distancing and disinfection procedures are in place at outpatient facilities (54%).

After months of lockdowns and constant messaging about the risks of going anywhere outside our homes, it’s no wonder we’re apprehensive about seeking care. How healthcare facilities communicate that they are “open for business” again will be critical to helping people overcome their fears and get back to care. Our health depends on it.