COVID-19 pandemic caused delayed preventative care for many Coloradans |

COVID-19 pandemic caused delayed preventative care for many Coloradans

Local health experts say demand for annual checkups is up after many skipped their appointments last year

Patient Keith Synnestvedt waits for Dr. C. Louis Perrinjaquet on Feb. 15, 2018, at the High Country Healthcare clinic in Breckenridge. Many individuals delayed annual checkups and preventative care due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hugh Carey/Summit Daily News archive

COVID-19 has largely dominated headlines for about a year and a half, and rightfully so. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, there have been nearly 8,000 deaths in the state due to the virus.

But as individuals hunkered down and cleared their schedules of activities, travel plans and gatherings, many also delayed annual checkups and preventative care. According to a recent study published Sept. 13 by the Colorado Health Institute, “From March 15 through the end of 2020, care volumes were down 25% compared with the same period in 2019.” According to the study’s report, “Missed health care visits led to missed diagnoses, untreated physical and behavioral health conditions, and the exacerbation of inequities in the health care system.”

Health providers are seeing this delayed care play out locally. Dr. Durant Abernethy practices pediatrics and internal medicine at High Country Healthcare in Frisco. During the pandemic, he said he witnessed many individuals who suffered as a result of disrupted routines and habits.

“As part of the pandemic, many of us weren’t able to keep up the same exercise regimens (and) our eating habits tended to suffer because we didn’t want to go to the grocery store as much to get fresh fruit and things,” he said. “So we gravitated toward a lot more starches and foods that sit well on a shelf but aren’t really the best for the diet we need.”

Abernethy said a big emphasis of his practice is patients who’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, and in the past year, some of these patients struggled due to unhealthy diets and a lack of exercise.

“That kind of snowballs into higher blood sugars, and uncontrolled diabetes increases the risk of tons of complications,” he said. “Some I actually have seen more recently are foot injuries or infections in the feet that if we had detected them earlier, we’d probably could’ve prevented the need for hospitalization, prevented the need for IV antibiotics or, in worst cases, even amputation.”

Dr. Adele Morano practices family medicine and works out of the same office as Abernethy. In her experience, she’s seeing patients delay getting preventative care like mammograms. In some cases, patients are also wanting to switch up how they access care, which isn’t always the most effective in the long run.

“What I have seen are patients who are wanting to do more virtual appointments for their blood-pressure check,” Morano said. “That becomes a little difficult because I’m not listening to their heart or their lungs; I’m not taking their blood pressure. (We’re) just relying on their home machine, which sometimes can be a little off. I feel like that isn’t the best care.”

During the pandemic, many individuals opted to do virtual appointments, and Abernethy reported that he’s seeing the same trend in patient care.

“We don’t discourage self breast exams, but it’s certainly not a replacement for a mammogram, and I have a lot of people saying that (they) do that at home and that should be good enough, and I disagree,” Abernethy said.

Not only that, but both Morano and Abernethy said in-person visits allow providers to do a more well-rounded, holistic checkup that’s often difficult to complete virtually. Morano pointed out that many intake forms include questions related to mental health issues and drug and alcohol use, both of which were up during the height of the pandemic. Abernethy pointed out that when a patient visits in person, it’s easier to run tests, if needed, than if providers meet with the patient through a computer screen.

“When people come into the office as opposed to a virtual visit, that gives us an opportunity to draw blood and update lab work, which anybody with high blood pressure or many chronic diseases usually needs blood work drawn on a routine basis,” Abernethy said.

Luckily, these issues aren’t impacting the availability of ICU beds locally. Centura Health spokesperson Brent Boyer said the emergency room at St. Anthony Summit Hospital isn’t experiencing a surge in care due to delayed checkups.

Still, Morano encouraged those who might have skipped checkups and exams last year to schedule their appointments sooner rather than later.

“It’s important that they’re getting their checkups because we can go through the preventative services that have been shown to actually save lives (like) doing their bone-density scan, doing a cholesterol screening if need be, doing a pap smear and doing a mammogram, doing potentially a prostate screening if need be,” Morano said.

Both Morano and Abernethy noted that they’re seeing an increased demand for scheduling annual checkups and screenings, so wait times might be slightly longer than usual for various providers and specialties.

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