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March 27, 2020

Health officials worried about delays in treating non-coronavirus needs

Photo | Grant Welker Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester

Hospitals in Central Massachusetts and elsewhere have delayed elective procedures to expand an ability to treat coronavirus-related patients.

But other harms could soon become evident if people with medical needs aren't going to a hospital to seek help, medical experts say. In Worcester, for example, the number of cases of patients arriving for cardiac or stroke care, for example, are down 25%, said Dr. Michael Hirsh, the medical director of the Worcester Division of Public Health.

"That portends that we're going to see a lot of sicker people coming to the hospital" at later points, Hirsh said. "I would not hesitate to go into the hospital if you have a symptom of an illness."

Hirsh said he's heard from medical personnel about people with medical issues not related to coronavirus are holding off on going to a hospital out of fear of catching the virus. Hospitals are doing a great job of separating those patients, however, he said.

"We know you're going to be much worse off if you wait too long," Hirsh, who is a pediatric surgeon at UMass Memorial Medical Center, said at a press conference Thursday at Worcester City Hall.

[Related: Massachusetts coronavirus cases rise 32%, Worcester County by 29%]

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar who specializes in infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security in Maryland, expressed the same concern in a webinar with medical reporters Friday.

Biopsies, colonoscopy screenings, pap smears or other medical appointments are being held off now are bound to become an issue in some cases later on, he said.

"That's something that you have to weigh against," Adalja said. "It's a cost down the road, but it's a cost nonetheless."

Hospitals have postponed non-essential procedures, but not all. Still, the American Cancer Society said on Wednesday it recommends no one should go to a healthcare facility for routine cancer screening at this time.

[Related: Mass. medical schools expedite 2020 graduation amid coronavirus crisis]

Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, advised patients may want to conduct tele-health appointments instead, talking to their doctors online without having to go into an office.

“It will require patience on everyone’s part as we go through this pandemic,” Lichtenfeld said in a statement. “It is important to maintain contact with your cancer care team to determine the best course of action for you. This may involve non-urgent follow up visits or talking to your care team virtually and not physically going to the clinic. So, it’s important to know who to call to reach your cancer care team to find out how to proceed.”

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine issued new guidelines this week for how best to manage patients remotely, and the American Heart Association advised those with heart ailments to stay home but make sure they know how to reach their doctor quickly.

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