When the pandemic swept across the globe a year ago, people’s health suddenly became a whole lot more important.
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta warned in March 2020 that underlying health issues like heart disease and asthma could put people at a higher risk for severe Covid-19 illness.
One of the first lines of defense for detecting these illnesses is an annual wellness exam, yet 25% of Americans reported they or someone in their household skipped or postponed medical care because of the pandemic, according to a December 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation study.
While you should consult with your primary care physician about the need for preventive care during the pandemic, health experts say most people should not delay their annual health exams.
Exams can detect early signs of illness
Yearly exams can catch some illnesses before someone shows symptoms, said Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association and an allergist in Fort Worth, Texas.
One common chronic condition is high blood pressure, which can “have devastating life-threatening impacts, such as stroke or heart failure,” Bailey said. People with high blood pressure are also at an increased risk for Covid-19, she added.
Another chronic condition that can be detected at a yearly exam is pre-diabetes, Bailey said. Lifestyle changes to diet and exercise can prevent some people from becoming diabetic, she added.
Lifestyle changes in lockdown
If you were healthy pre-pandemic, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy now.
That’s because many people have been stuck indoors for long periods of time, often working from home, which is a drastic lifestyle change that can negatively impact people’s health, Bailey said.
“Many people have gained weight during the pandemic because they’re not eating as well and they’re not exercising as much,” Bailey said.
Drinking more alcohol and poor sleep can have adverse effects on your health, she added, and your primary care physician can help you tackle those issues.
Physicians are a mental health resource
The pandemic has caused an increase in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, which should be addressed with your health care provider, Bailey said.
She said there has also been an increase in opioid overdose deaths since the pandemic began “because people have not been able to get their mental health needs addressed or may not have had access to the care that they needed,” Bailey said.
Children are also at risk for mental health illnesses during this time, said Dr. Anita Chandra-Puri, a pediatrician with Northwestern Medicine in Chicago and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
She said her patients have anxiety about falling behind in school, missing out on sporting activities and not knowing how long the pandemic will last.
Some children are also battling depression because they’re isolated and not interacting with their school friends, Chandra-Puri added.
“They often don’t have people to speak to about how they’re feeling, and so I may be their only resource,” she said.
Pediatricians look for signs of abuse and well-being
Chandra-Puri said she asks her patients questions about their life at home and if they’re getting enough to eat.
“Teachers are often the first lines of seeing this,” she said, but because many students aren’t attending school in person, the responsibility weighs more heavily on pediatricians to detect signs of abuse.
“It’s really important for us to make sure that we can have that time to really evaluate children carefully and make sure they’re safe in their spaces at home,” she said.
How to prepare for a yearly checkup
Bailey recommended bringing a list of your family’s health history, including your own. Some items to write down include your current medications, food and drug allergies, and health concerns, she said.
“It’s easy to forget things because you’re anxious, so it’s very important to make sure that you get all your questions answered,” Bailey said.
Also be prepared to share details of your Covid-19 illness if you contracted the virus, she said. There may be long-term health implications, especially if you had pneumonia or were hospitalized, Bailey added.
Physicians are a great resource for Covid-19 vaccinations
Primary care providers can provide factual information about the Covid-19 vaccine and refer patients to other resources, Chandra-Puri said.
“Seeking out medical information from your medical provider is the best starting point as opposed to social media or the internet,” she said.
Bailey said it’s important to discuss getting the vaccine with your doctor because he or she can be a great resource for finding out when you are eligible, and she urges people to take the vaccine when it becomes available to them.
Pediatricians can also determine whether a child is eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine, according to Chandra-Puri. The US Food and Drug Administration has authorized the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use for people 16 years and older, she noted, and she’s hopeful the vaccine will be available for younger patients soon.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said vaccine safety information for 12 to 17-year-olds will be available this fall, according to a recent CNN report. Fauci, also chief White House medical adviser, said there most likely won’t be trial-based data until early next year for younger children.