The past month has been a crash course for me in telemedicine, as my geriatric cardiology practice went from fully in-person to fully “virtual” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the abrupt startup and inevitable bumps along the way, many of my older patients have successfully transitioned to video encounters for the time being. And I’ve noticed a recurring theme during many of these video conversations: people tell me that they’re terrified of coming to the hospital, even in an emergency.

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This fear has been reported in both the scientific literature and the lay press – with a precipitous drop in hospitalizations for emergent conditions ranging from acute coronary syndrome (ACS) to stroke. For example, Metzler et al. reported that in Austria, from the beginning to the end of March 2020, ACS hospitalizations decreased by nearly 40% – far outside the range of normal variation. The authors hypothesized that “the strict instructions to stay at home as well as the fear of infection in a medical facility may have…prevented patients with an ACS from going to a hospital.” Similarly, a study in the U.S. of several high-volume cardiac catheterization laboratories found a 38% reduction in emergent activations for ACS due to ST segment elevation myocardial infarction after March 1. In the setting of ACS, failure to present due to fear of hospitals may lead to multiple consequences including fatal arrhythmias, heart failure, and death. And based on the data, it’s highly likely that many patients are suffering through ACS and other emergent conditions at home.

What steps can we take? COVID-19 has created an unprecedented challenge to modern healthcare, and there’s no consensus even among experts. In my own practice, I emphasize to my patients there are certain symptoms – persistent chest pain, shortness of breath at rest, new speech difficulty – that require them to go to the emergency room; the consequences of failing to act are too great. Letting patients know about new telemedicine options (e.g. virtual “urgent care” 24 hours a day) may help them to know there are options between staying home and calling an ambulance, so that their symptoms can be appropriately triaged. Finally, as the effects of social distancing take hold and COVID-19 cases decline, fear of hospitals may decrease. But for now, the problem is very real, and can be considered as one of the many negative consequences of the pandemic.

 

By: John Dodson, MD

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