As if combating a pandemic was not enough, healthcare providers were urging patients not to delay important medical procedures.
In early spring, as COVID cases rose and states shut down, many hospitals, if not all in Georgia, stopped doing elective procedures, said Anna Adams, vice president of government relations at the Georgia Hospital Association (GHA).
Or, at least, that’s the term used for the procedures. Patients who had those procedures scheduled would probably phrase it differently, she said. “I don’t know that elective is really the best way to describe these types of procedures, because it doesn’t really feel that way for patients who needed hernia repairs, or perhaps a gallbladder removed – things that are truly causing discomfort.”
For almost two months, those patients had to play the waiting game until hospitals were able to start their procedures back up with new rules in place.
“For some patients, as soon as hospitals started to open back up and allow these elective procedures again, there was a flooding, if you will, of everyone trying to reschedule all at once.”
As of midsummer, hospitals in Georgia were still working feverishly to get those done. Fortunately, most of those procedures were outpatient, so they weren’t contributing to the capacity issue the hospitals faced in July and August as COVID cases began to rise again.
However, there’s no doubt that the pandemic has thrown a wrench into the regular pace of electives. Not all patients who needed care rushed back to schedule their procedures.
“I think for certain communities, these patients would love to have their procedures done, but either couldn’t because the hospital stopped elective procedures, or they were choosing not to because they were afraid that going into the hospital would put them at risk for COVID.”
GHA has done a lot of work, both statewide and at the community level, to ensure the public understands that hospitals are safe and that the facilities are going through very extensive cleaning and sanitation measures to ensure patient safety.
“Sanitation is not a new practice for hospitals,” said Adams. “Cleanliness is a priority. But we don’t want our patients to delay care because of the fear of COVID. It’s best for patients to get care as quickly as possible so that these issues don’t get worse or become chronic. We certainly don’t want people to delay if they don’t have to.”
In late July, GHA announced #MaskUpGA, a campaign to encourage all Georgians to make the choice to wear face coverings when in public settings and to social distance when possible to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
The purpose of the campaign is to encourage organizations, businesses, and individuals to post on social media pictures or videos of themselves wearing masks and to accompany these posts with #MaskUpGA and a message about why they “mask up.”
“If the public doesn’t take personal responsibility for their own health and responsibility for not spreading COVID, our hospitals are not going to get a break,” Adams said.
At the national level, in July, an alliance of healthcare organizations announced the launch of a campaign and PSA called “Stop Medical Distancing.” Committed to helping Americans better understand the risks of not seeking medical attention for symptoms that would normally lead to visiting a healthcare provider or healthcare facility, the campaign draws a distinction between social distancing and medical distancing and underscores the preventive measures healthcare organizations now have in place to limit the spread of the virus, including the use of telemedicine.
Recent research published by GoodRx reported that more than 75% of Americans have had some aspect of their healthcare disrupted due to COVID-19. “While people should continue to practice good hygiene, social distancing and mask wearing in public settings, it is critically important for people to continue talking to their healthcare professionals to get the care they need,” the organizations said in a joint release. Delaying care for a medical emergency, such as a heart attack or stroke, can be life-threatening or lead to serious complications. In children, delaying routine care, such as vaccinations or well-child visits that help to assess development and growth, can have negative consequences.
“We are seeing a troubling pattern that people are avoiding medical visits in fear of contracting COVID-19,” said William Shrank, M.D. and chief medical officer of Humana. “While we understand the fears that many people have around contracting the virus, our country’s medical facilities have adopted CDC guidelines and best practices and even telemedicine options to make your visit as safe as possible to prevent the spread of the virus. The intent of the campaign is to let people know that protecting yourself against getting this virus does not need to come at the expense of your overall health.”
The healthcare organizations that came together to create the “Stop Medical Distancing” campaign include: Baptist Health South Florida, Baylor Scott & White Health, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Health Mart, Humana, Kindred Healthcare, LabCorp, McKesson Corporation, Providence and Walgreens. Together, this group of industry-leading healthcare experts is committed to collaborating on this important initiative to ensure the well-being of millions of Americans.
Having to delay care hasn’t affected just patient health. Hospitals in Georgia and across the country are feeling the strain financially.
“It has put them in a bad spot financially, because these are the types of procedures where we do get some sort of revenue to help offset the losses that we see in other areas – emergency care and OB care, etc. When that revenue stream is lost, it impacts the hospital’s ability to maintain normal operations, and it impacts their cash flow,” Adams said.
Adams said when some hospitals started canceling elective procedures, they also found themselves furloughing staff.
“In the middle of a pandemic, you don’t want to think about having to furlough your staff so that you can meet payroll,” she said. “This is something that’s more common in smaller hospitals and more rural areas, but it’s had a huge impact on the big system facilities as well.”
Indeed, in May, Georgia’s largest healthcare system, Emory Healthcare, announced it would cut hours and furlough 1,500 employees as it faced a $660 million revenue shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported. Another major organization, Wellstar Health System, announced in May it would furlough more than 1,000 employees.
Delayed medical care wasn’t solely related to elective procedures. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, patients delayed emergency care at an alarming rate.
As the United States declared a national emergency in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and states enacted stay-at-home orders to slow the spread and reduce the burden on the U.S. health care system, the CDC and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recommended that health care systems prioritize urgent visits and delay elective care to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in health care settings.
By May 2020, national syndromic surveillance data found that emergency department (ED) visits had declined 42% during the early months of the pandemic. In the 10 weeks following the emergency declaration (March 15–May 23, 2020), ED visits declined 23% for myocardial infarction (MI), 20% for stroke, and 10% for hyperglycemic crisis, compared with the preceding 10-week period (Jan. 5–March 14, 2020).
“EDs play a critical role in diagnosing and treating life-threatening conditions that might result in serious disability or death. Persons experiencing signs or symptoms of serious illness, such as severe chest pain, sudden or partial loss of motor function, altered mental state, signs of extreme hyperglycemia, or other life-threatening issues, should seek immediate emergency care, regardless of the pandemic,” the CDC said in a release. “Clear, frequent, highly visible communication from public health and health care professionals is needed to reinforce the importance of timely care for medical emergencies and to assure the public that EDs are implementing infection prevention and control guidelines that help ensure the safety of their patients and health care personnel.”
The CDC reported that, based off its study, at least one in five expected U.S. ED visits for MI or stroke and one in 10 ED visits for hyperglycemic crisis did not occur during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Patients might have delayed or avoided seeking care because of fear of COVID-19, unintended consequences of recommendations to stay at home, or other reasons.
In an op-ed for USA Today, Dr. Melinda L. Estes, chair of the American Hospital Association board, and president and CEO of Saint Luke’s Health System in Kansas City, Missouri, urged readers not to delay emergency care.
“Emergencies don’t stop, and neither do we,” Estes wrote. “We urge you, please don’t delay emergency care … for heart attacks, strokes, falls or any other urgent need. Right now, a hospital’s emergency department is among the safest places you can step into anywhere. If you need care, please don’t allow unwarranted fear of COVID-19 to prevent you from getting the medical attention you need and deserve.”
Adams said hospitals in Georgia have adjusted in several ways. Hospitals are performing extensive pre-surgical screenings that include asking patients a series of question to determine if they’ve had a fever or been around someone who has tested positive for COVID. Many hospitals require pre-surgery COVID testing within a certain time period before the surgery occurs.
“I think the screenings have given patients a little peace of mind as well as the providers and the facility itself,” Adams said.
A lot of surgeons and facilities have made it a point to do regular telehealth visits in the interim while they’re waiting to be able to reschedule their elective procedures to maintain a line of communication so that the patient doesn’t feel forgotten.
“Patients should know that hospitals are still open and ready, we still want to get them the help that they need, and we’re making every effort to do it in a way that’s responsible.”
Hospitals and providers have come a long way since the beginning of the pandemic. Georgia and other states are no strangers to disaster preparedness, but the majority of the disaster preparedness done in the past has been for things like hurricanes and tornadoes.
“This has been a new animal because it’s not isolated to just one portion of the state,” Adams said. “COVID has had a profound effect on whole state and the entire United States of America.”
One positive change has been the amount of communication that’s happening from hospital to hospital. Recently, hospitals have started sharing supplies because it’s still difficult to get PPE, some medications and even equipment. In some cases, they’re even sharing staff. Furloughed staffers at one hospital are finding work through a contract that GHA has with one of its vendor partners.
“They’re using them in hospitals where they’re short staffed, so we can keep them employed,” Adams said. “I think that communication and that sharing between facilities has been incredibly helpful.”
The supply chain continues to be a challenge.
“From a from a PPE standpoint, I don’t think we ever realized that we were going to need this much PPE,” she said. “There were hospitals who went into this with PPE supplies that, under normal circumstances, would last a year, and instead they were burning through those in one to two months. That extra cushion on making sure that you have enough supplies is something I don’t think they’ll forget in the near future and will keep in mind moving forward. Once we have bounced back from COVID, I don’t think you’ll see hospitals who keep a low supply of PPE, maybe one or two months, on hand anymore.”