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As the coronavirus pandemic accelerates in our community, we are seeing far too many people delaying essential doctor’s appointments out of fear of contracting the virus. In some cases, the risk from foregoing these routine appointments may be greater than the virus itself.

A recent study found more than 30% of people are avoiding medical care due to fears of COVID-19. Delaying care for a medical emergency, such as a heart attack or stroke, can be life-threatening. Even for my orthopedic patients, delaying treatment for chronic joint or arthritis pain can lead to serious physical and mental health complications.

Hospitals and medical offices may, in fact, be among the safest places to visit. Screening for potential COVID-19 symptoms, limiting visitors to facilities, frequent disinfection of surfaces and mask requirements are among the steps we are taking to ensure a safe environment for patients to receive the care they need. At our hospital, our safety precautions are guided by recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our own infectious disease experts.

In addition, like many hospitals across the country, we have expanded access to telehealth to provide patients a safe alternative to in-person visits. While telehealth has been in existence for more than 20 years, the coronavirus pandemic pushed us forward at least a decade in its implementation. During the initial surge in the spring, it is estimated between 50% to 80% of medical visits were conducted via telehealth, compared to 1% before the pandemic.

Clearly, telehealth will not replace every visit, but it is an excellent tool for established patients and routine care. In my practice, telehealth is particularly helpful for those with mobility issues, such as elderly patients and those suffering from chronic back and joint pain in whom invasive measures are not anticipated.

Telehealth is also an excellent means for routine, post-surgical checks to see how the incision is healing and to prevent infection. Telehealth enables me to inspect the wound without requiring the patient, who is often still recovering from surgery, to travel to and from my office. It is also an effective tool to review results of MRI’s and other tests and discuss treatment plans.

We are also finding the expansion of telehealth may lead to improved outcomes for those who use it. Largely due to the fact patients are less likely to skip or cancel telehealth appointments, a recent study found telehealth patients had 38% fewer hospital admissions and 31% fewer hospital re-admissions.

As we get through the next few weeks and months together, let’s do the things we all know we need to do – wear a mask, frequently wash your hands, practice social distancing – but don’t distance yourself from the medical care you need. It’s important that while we focus on staying safe that we don’t lose our focus on staying healthy.

Dr. Matthew Levy writes about orthopedics for the Cleveland and Columbus Jewish News. He is an orthopedic surgeon at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center and practices in Solon, Independence and downtown Cleveland.

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