Last week, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MINN) shared an update about her health that highlights the serious consequences of postponing annual checkups due to the pandemic. Apparently, in February, a routine mammogram revealed some suspicious spots. After a biopsy, the 61-year-old senator was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. Fortunately, the cancer was detected early, and after a lumpectomy and radiation, she is now cancer-free.
In her statement, Klobuchar called attention to the fact that many people have been delaying annual physicals and routine exams on account of the pandemic. “I know that because I delayed mine,” says Klobuchar. “In fact, more than one in three adults reported delaying or foregoing health care because of coronavirus-related concerns. Studies have found that thousands of people who missed their mammogram due to the pandemic may be living with undetected breast cancer.”
A Troubling Trend Emerges as People Postpone Routine Health Care
Klobuchar certainly isn’t alone in postponing a routine health screening. While my annual mammogram was the one appointment I was too afraid to put off, I did forego my annual physical until just last week, which meant I skipped it altogether in 2020.
“Routine annual physical exams for healthy individuals and regularly scheduled follow up for those with chronic medical illnesses have been occurring with much less regularity since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic,” says Catherine Hohn, M.D., a primary care physician and functional medicine specialist at PALM Health. “Patients have been postponing visits or converting in-office visits to virtual visits. This is great for stemming the spread of the Coronavirus but not good for general health maintenance.”
According to the CDC, four in 10 U.S. adults reported avoiding medical care because of concerns related to COVID-19. To make matters worse, this trend is especially prevalent among people with disabilities and those with two or more underlying conditions.
Risks of Delaying Routine Health Care
“As patients postpone routine follow-up care, they fall behind in yearly screening exams and lab testing, and they run the risk of developing illnesses that may go undiagnosed,” says Hohn. “Those with chronic illnesses can find themselves with poorly controlled conditions due to the lack of surveillance. There is great value in the virtual medical visit, but virtual visits are not optimal for the annual physical exam or follow up of chronic medical conditions, as it is impossible to obtain vital signs such as weight, heart rate, and blood pressure. Physical exams are very limited in the virtual setting.”
Mammograms, colonoscopies, and skin cancer screenings are just some of the important medical appointments that shouldn’t be postponed for long, as early detection can greatly impact the course of treatment and be the difference between life and death. While for many, the delay was based on a simple decision meant to minimize their exposure to the virus. For others who have lost jobs and corresponding healthcare benefits, it wasn’t so much a choice as a necessary time-out as they navigate their uncertain employment status and the search for affordable healthcare.
“It is important to see all healthy patients over the age of 50 on a yearly basis for routine physical examination and blood work,” says Hohn. “Many of these individuals feel just fine, but on exam or through labs, we discover health issues that can be diagnosed and treated early. Patients with chronic medical issues such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes need to be seen every three to six months to make sure their medical care is optimized. By seeing these patients frequently, I can help prevent disease progression and help avoid the development of additional medical illnesses.”
After 19 months, the pandemic is still raging, but thanks to vaccines, there is hope that the consequences of getting the virus aren’t nearly as life-threatening. Putting off important exams and screenings, however, will most definitely lead to people being diagnosed at more advanced stages—when the prognosis is more serious, and treatments are likely to be less successful.
Important Vaccines, Screenings, and Tests You Shouldn’t Postpone
Hohn recommends all her patients stay up to date on vaccines such as TDAP, which can prevent tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis; Shingrix, to prevent shingles; flu, one of the three COVID-19 vaccines, and Pneumovax23, which protects from 23 variants of the pneumococcal bacteria. According to her, it’s important for women to have regular mammograms, bone density testing, and pap smears. For men, PSA tests, which measure prostate-specific antigens in their blood, and rectal exams are key. “It is also important to offer all patients over the age of 45 a Cologuard or colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer,” says Hohn.
According to research published by the National Cancer Institute, more than 10,000 breast and colorectal cancer deaths are predicted to occur based on poor screening rates during the pandemic. As we draw close to the 20th month of this pandemic, it’s clear we can no longer postpone these important exams. The risks are just too great, and early detection is key.
“It’s easy to put off health screenings, just like I did,” says Klobuchar. “But I hope my experience is a reminder for every one of the value of routine health checkups, exams, and follow-through. I am so fortunate to have caught the cancer at an early stage and to not need chemotherapy or other extensive treatments, which unfortunately is not the case for so many others.”