With some parts of the country opening back up after weeks of social distancing, you may be wondering whether it’s safe to resume normal activities. Some things, like taking your kids to the library, can wait more easily than others, like seeing your doctor for an annual checkup.
Should you put off that routine physical?
And what about more pressing concerns, like an aching tooth, shoulder pain or the elective knee replacement that got put on hold in February?
Health experts still don’t know enough about the novel coronavirus or COVID19 to say for sure when this outbreak will end. But in the meantime, we have lives to lead. We can’t — and shouldn’t — delay every medical appointment or treatment in the name of quarantine.
Still, caution is the word of the day.
If you’re wondering whether you should postpone a trip to the doctor’s office right now, just keep the following in mind.
First, a disclaimer: Please don’t take any of this as medical advice, since we aren’t doctors. And more important, we’re not your doctor. If you have questions about coming in to see your provider — or any questions at all — give your doctor’s office a call. They can tell you better than we can what’s safest in your case.
Your Medical Needs
No one sees a doctor for fun, but some visits are more pressing than others. If you have a medically necessary appointment, outpatient procedure, surgery or other scheduled treatment, you probably need to keep it. This applies to things like:
- Regular visits to manage a chronic condition, like diabetes or post-op care
- Critical surgeries designed to treat medical problems and/or improve quality of life — think open heart surgery
- Follow-up appointments for conditions you already have, like discussing test results with your doctor or getting more lab work done for a diagnosis
- Mental health care, even if it means using virtual visits
It also applies to things that come up unexpectedly and disrupt your life, like bad headaches, constant fatigue, bites and cuts, mental health symptoms or other symptoms that bother you.
You should also always seek emergency care if you need help right away.
Not sure if it’s urgent enough? Err on the side of caution and call 911 for things like trouble breathing, chest pain, excessive stomach pain or vomiting, and other ER-level problems. For other non-life-threatening issues, call an urgent care center and ask if you need to come in.
Note that even if you need to see your doctor, you may not be able to during the pandemic. Depending on where you live, your hospital system might be overwhelmed with COVID19 cases. If you’ve already had surgeries postponed or doctor’s appointments delayed, then that may continue if it’s safe in your case.
But if you live in a less hard-hit area and your providers aren’t slammed, then you should be able to keep regular medical appointments and treatments — with extra precautions, of course.
In any case, always call your doctor to check before missing a scheduled appointment. She may need you to wait, or it might be critical that you come in as scheduled.
Things That Can (Probably) Wait
Routine physicals are important. They give your doctor a baseline for keeping tabs on your health. Under normal circumstances, we would never recommend skipping or delaying an annual checkup. But given the unusual crisis facing the world at the moment, these kinds of visits could probably be delayed.
Along with your annual physical, you may have to wait on in-person care for things like:
- Elective surgeries, like knee and hip replacements
- Common, non-urgent medical problems, such as a stomach bug or seasonal allergies
- Routine dental visits (cleanings) and cosmetic dentistry (e.g. teeth whitening)
- Appointments for elective or cosmetic procedures that don’t affect your quality of life
Of course, what’s non-urgent to one person might be pressing to you. “Elective” doesn’t mean unimportant. Per WebMD, it just means planned in advance. And in some cases, an elective knee replacement surgery might mean the difference between unrelenting pain and restored mobility.
Seasonal allergies can be mildly irritating or life-threatening without proper treatment. Likewise, excess vomiting without a known cause is a reason to get checked out.
As with the medically necessary care we mentioned above, check with your doctor to see if you need to come in for ailments that aren’t as urgent. You may be able to wait a few weeks for your annual mammogram, for example, assuming you’re otherwise healthy.
Your Mental State
Don’t discount your own mental state when deciding whether to reschedule a doctor’s appointment. Stress can be a real problem for your body, not just your mental health.
If you’re worried that your doctor won’t have time to help you with a medical problem because of COVID19, set those fears aside. Coronavirus may have cut doctors’ time and attention short these days, but that doesn’t mean you’re not important to your provider.
Give your doctor’s office a call if you need to keep your appointment, even if it’s something that might be safely delayed. Your mental health matters.
If it will give you peace of mind to get your routine physical done or to have an unusual bug bite examined, don’t hesitate to call your doctor.
Some in-person doctor’s visits might not be a good idea right now, but that doesn’t mean you have to resort to Dr. Google for medical advice. Thanks to telemedicine, you likely have access to your provider already via the web. You can use virtual doctor visits for a lot of things, including:
- Minor aches and pains
- Common illnesses, like a cold or the flu
- Normal cuts, scrapes and stings
- Skin problems, like rashes
- Back pain and headaches
- Regular checkups or follow-up appointments
Not sure if your doctor uses telemedicine? Just ask. Virtual visits existed before the COVID19 outbreak. But lots of practices have since adopted the technology to make things easier on patients during the pandemic. Even if you can’t video chat with your doctor, you should still be able to chat over the phone.
Plus, your health insurance plan should treat telemedicine the same as it does in-person visits. (Check your individual health plan to make sure.)
And to reiterate a point from earlier: If you think your medical problem is life-threatening or immediately urgent, always call 911.
As we said in the disclaimer at the start, we aren’t doctors. We offer this guidance for informational purposes only. If you’re concerned about delaying appointments and/or what coming in might mean for coronavirus risk, check in with your provider.