The phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” has never been more important, local doctors say.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some patients have sidelined preventive care or checkups for chronic health conditions. Missing these routine appointments can have significant consequences for a patient’s health, doctors say.
“Whenever conditions — including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugars, thyroid disease, glaucoma — are not controlled or undiagnosed, they are actively causing strain and doing damage to the body,” said Dr. Thomas Wilkins, a Community Care Network family medicine physician.
Wilkins, who is on staff at Community Hospital in Munster and St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago, says damage can build over time and become permanent.
“Many of these conditions are labeled as silent killers, and by the time one notices symptoms, significant irreversible damage has already been done,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 in 10 U.S. adults avoided medical care last year because of concerns related to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately since the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the early days of the pandemic, a lot of patients were hesitant to go to their physician, hospital or emergency department if they felt ill,” said Dr. Maribonn Tiangson, who specializes in internal medicine with Northwest Health. “Due to that, illnesses that can come with concerning complications like stroke, heart attacks and infections, to name a few, are either missed or diagnosed late.”
Time is not luxury for everyone, especially when it comes to health care, says Dr. Daniel de Gala, a primary care physician with Northwest Health.
“All diseases progress at different speeds and getting a handle on them early can make all the difference,” he said.
For example, getting diabetes under control quickly helps prevent ong-term complications such as nerve, kidney and eye damage, de Gala said. It also reduces the risk of stroke and heart attack.
“Getting blood pressure under control prevents similar complications,” he said.
Dr. Ram Narayan, a radiation oncologist with Methodist Hospitals, says at the beginning of the pandemic, he noticed more patients delaying care even when they had symptoms.
“We definitely saw some examples of those who delayed a little too long and ended up in a situation where they were a little worse off than they could have been in,” he said.
Time is of the essence when it comes to identifying cancer and beginning treatment, Narayan says.
“Cancer has the potential to spread to other parts of the body and that turns into a worse situation overall,” he said. “Early stages can a lot of times be cured. So if there’s a lag in time, and it spreads to other parts of the body, it’s much more difficult to cure. There’s a window of opportunity to cure.”
Dr. Mihas Kodenchery, a cardiologist with Methodist Physician Group, says the effects of delaying treatment can vary by condition but can be severe and quick.
“There is a general belief that hospital and physician offices are full of COVID,” Kodenchery said. “So people who have dangerous and acute conditions like clots in legs and lungs, heart attacks and strokes often do not seek medical attention till their symptoms are severe and unbearable.”
This delay may cost patients their lives or reduce the success of treatment, he said.
“In more elective situations, diseases like heart failure and blockages tend to get worse with time,” Kodenchery said. “There is a limited period of time during which early intervention and treatment will prevent complication and even reverse the condition.”
So how does one make up for lost time?
“The best time is to start now,” said Dr. Emmett Robinson, a Franciscan Physician Network provider who specializes in internal medicine at St. Clare Health Clinic in Crown Point. “That’s as simple as seeing a primary care doctor even if you don’t have a general ache or complaint, just to get established.”
For those who are being treated for a condition, de Gala says it’s important to schedule routine visits so physicians can determine whether a treatment is effective or whether it is interfering with other aspects of a person’s life.
“Whenever a patient comes back to see me, we touch base on how a treatment may be affecting not only their specific problem, but overall, their quality of life,” he said. “This is so I can check to make sure that they are not having any subtle symptoms signaling side effects. It also allows me to come back to things that may not have been addressed in a while if we’ve been focusing on a new or worsening problem.”
Dr. Ragini Bielski, an internal medicine physician on staff at St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart and Community Stroke & Rehabilitation Center in Crown Point, says during a pandemic, it’s important to make sure patients are in the best shape possible so families can stay healthy.
“Missing a checkup could prevent you from getting the timely care you need for your chronic conditions, and falling behind on your or your family members’ routine vaccines puts you and others at risk,” Bielski said. “Staying up to date is the best way to keep you and your family healthy.”
For those who have not been treated for any conditions over the past year, a wellness check will allow a physician to review a patient’s medical history and vitals, including blood pressure and heart rate. Lab work and other screenings to examine blood sugar levels, kidney function, cholesterol levels and thyroid functions may occur as well, Robinson said.
Identifying issues before symptoms are present can improve outcomes, he says.
“The hesitation to come into the office for preventive health services during such times is understandable,” he said. “However, prolonged postponement comes at a cost to your overall general health.”
Robinson says the importance of simple procedures such as blood pressure and heart rate measurements, along with general blood work and cancer screenings, is immeasurable.
“Deservedly, COVID-19 has captured all of our attention, but let it be known the leading cause of death in the U.S. for 2020 was still heart disease, followed by cancer and then COVID-19,” he said.