At this time, you may think there are a lot of reasons you shouldn’t visit a doctor if you have concerns about your health. Because of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), you might wonder if your symptoms warrant the risk of leaving your home or if your local clinic or emergency department is safe to visit. Are doctors too busy to deal with your concerns? (Spoiler alert: No, they want to help.)
We talked to two UNC Health physicians who answered our questions about where and when to seek treatment, and why it could be dangerous to delay.
Leave Diagnosing and Treating Illness to the Experts
While there may be a wealth of medical information at your fingertips these days—some reliable, some definitely not—that doesn’t mean you can accurately diagnose your ailment. For example, COVID-19 and seasonal allergies share some symptoms, and it’s very important to know which you’re dealing with.
UNC Health family medicine doctor Alexa M. Mieses Malchuk, MD, MPH, recently took a call from a patient who had experienced burning with urination for more than a month. The woman self-diagnosed a urinary tract infection and took over-the-counter medication. Then the discomfort accelerated to include symptoms of nausea, vomiting and fever, Dr. Mieses Malchuk says.
“So this poses an issue, because on one hand, this could be an example of a UTI that’s gotten out of control and ascended to the patient’s kidneys, causing a more serious infection in her body. Or could the burning with urination be an incidental finding and she should be screened for COVID-19 because of the fever and vomiting?”
Dr. Mieses Malchuk says she has seen more examples of people trying to diagnose and treat their illnesses at home to avoid a visit to the doctor. If an infection or other condition is misdiagnosed and left to develop, it can be dangerous to your health. It also could make it more difficult for your provider to determine the cause of your symptoms when he or she is consulted. Plus, some infections, including UTIs, require antibiotics that you can’t buy over the counter.
“Family doctors are here to problem-solve—not just to diagnose, but figure out how to get you the best care without undergoing undue risk,” Dr. Mieses Malchuk says.
Postponing Treatment Can Be Dangerous
When it comes to heart attack and stroke, delaying treatment can have severe consequences, including death.
“They have a saying in cardiology: Time is heart muscle,” says UNC Health emergency medicine doctor Abhi Mehrotra, MD. “If you think you’ve had a heart attack or another heart event, the longer you wait to get treatment, the more you lose heart function.”
The same is true of stroke, in which every minute counts to preserve brain tissue.
Unfortunately, it appears that people who are experiencing symptoms of heart attack and stroke are delaying going to the emergency department because they’re not absolutely sure and they’re worried about catching the coronavirus.
Visits to emergency departments across the U.S. are down, Dr. Mehrotra says. In Chapel Hill and Hillsborough, the number of patients seen is down 40 to 50 percent compared with this time last year.
“The concern is that patients who need to seek treatment are not,” he says.
If you have a health issue or symptom of a serious event such as heart attack or stroke, time matters. Seek help immediately by calling 911 or visiting the emergency department. The risk of staying home in these cases may be far worse than the benefits.
Schedule a Telehealth Visit
If you’re uncertain about whether it’s a good idea to visit your doctor, simply ask by phone or through your health system’s messaging platform.
Your provider will make a virtual visit work if he or she can, for everyone’s safety.
“We’re trying to handle as much as possible virtually through a video or phone visit right now,” Dr. Mieses Malchuk says.
Telehealth capabilities and insurance coverage have rapidly expanded in recent months. Dr. Mieses Malchuk says that many initial visits at UNC Family Medicine clinics can be done virtually.
“Even when arriving at the emergency department, you have the option of arranging a telehealth encounter where you can have a video visit with an emergency medicine provider (from your car) if you don’t immediately need to come into the ED,” Dr. Mehrotra says.
Clinics and Hospitals Are Prepared to Help
For the cases that need an in-person visit to a clinic or hospital, know that healthcare workers are making your safety, and their own, the first priority.
Waiting rooms are either no longer being used—some offices might ask you to wait in your car—or strict physical distancing measures are in place. In some cases, including UNC Health’s emergency departments in Chapel Hill and Hillsborough, tents have been set up outside to screen patients for COVID-19 and provide masks for them to wear during their visits. People with COVID-19 symptoms are separated from those without.
Clinic staff are minimizing the number of people who see each patient, and everyone is wearing masks and other personal protective equipment as needed. Surfaces are frequently sanitized, and hand-washing is a constant. If a patient only needs bloodwork, some clinics are sending phlebotomists to the patient’s car to draw blood.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep patients safe,” Dr. Mieses Malchuk says. “We have administrative staff acting as air traffic controllers to make sure patients aren’t crossing paths with each other. Everyone, including the providers as well as staff, is wearing PPE. We do wellness checks at the beginning of each day with our staff.”
The takeaway? The experts want to help keep you healthy, and they’re taking all the precautions possible to protect you and your family, and themselves and their families. However, your medical needs don’t “pause” for COVID-19.
“If a patient needs help, we’re here for them,” Dr. Mehrotra says.
If you’d like to schedule a telehealth visit with a physician, you can use UNC Health’s 24/7 Virtual Urgent Care, or see if your provider is offering virtual services.