Huge demands for certain kinds of care, less for others
If you had to cancel routine or screening health care visits because of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are advising you to now follow up and make the appointments you missed as soon as possible.
“Screening exams or procedures are recommended to identify conditions that when detected early can benefit from interventions or treatment that can greatly improve outcomes,” says Dr. Richard Seidman, chief medical officer of L.A. Care Health Plan — the largest publicly operated health plan in the country.
The top seven health screenings you need now are:
1. Routine physical exam
Adults are generally encouraged to visit with their primary care provider at least once per year for an annual physical exam. During this visit, your doctor will check your blood pressure and body weight and other vitals that can indicate the state of your overall health and wellness.
During this visit, your doctor will ask questions that can help them determine if you’re at risk of:
— Heart disease and hypertension.
— Sexually transmitted diseases.
Your doctor will also be looking for any other signs or symptoms of illness or a chronic condition and take steps to treat these conditions if they exist.
You may also have bloodwork done so your doctor can check your blood sugars, cholesterol levels and other indications of whether you might have diabetes or heart disease.
If you’re due for routine vaccinations, such as the shingles vaccine, flu shot or a tetanus booster, that can be taken care of during your annual visit too.
Dr. Mark S. Johnson, professor and chairman of the department of community and family medicine at the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., says that many providers are concerned about weight fluctuations their patients may have experienced during the pandemic.
“A lot of people gained weight during the pandemic because they had less opportunity to exercise and increased opportunity to eat. Weight gain has been a significant problem during the pandemic and the gain increases people’s risk for diabetes and heart disease.”
2. Mental health screenings
The last year has been a challenging one for just about everyone, and if you’re feeling blue or stressed out, it’s best to contact your primary care provider or a mental health clinician to set up a consultation.
Seidman says “regular doctor’s visits give your doctor the opportunity to ask screening questions about your mental health and life changes that might increase your risk” of developing depression, anxiety or another mental health disorder.
Your primary care provider will also screen you for mental and behavioral health concerns during your annual visit.
3. Cancer screenings
“The biggest category of screenings impacted by the pandemic was cancer screenings,” Johnson says.
In fact, says Jovanna McKinney, operations manager for imaging and procedure access and prevention and screening programs at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, “breast and lung screenings decreased by more than 60% each during the initial months of the pandemic.” This is worrisome because “early detection is known to greatly reduce the possible impacts of any finding on breast and lung cancer screening exams,” she adds.
In addition to mammograms and lung cancer screenings, pap smears for cervical cancer and colonoscopies for colorectal cancer also declined significantly in the earlier months of the pandemic, Johnson says. “All of these would normally get scheduled during health maintenance visits, but these are the screenings that we weren’t getting done during the pandemic.”
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force offers the following advice for these common cancer screenings:
— Mammograms: Women aged 50 to 74 years should have a mammogram every other year. Women aged 40 to 49 should discuss with your doctor about whether and when to start screening. Individuals with a personal or family history of breast cancer or a BRCA gene mutation that can elevate risk should also discuss screening protocol with your doctor.
— Colonoscopies: Patients aged 50 to 75 years of age should get a colonoscopy to screen for colorectal cancer at least every 10 years. Those with higher risk factors should consider starting screening earlier.
— Pap smears: Women aged 21 to 29 years should be screened every three years. Women aged 30 to 65 can be screened every five years.
— Lung scans: Individuals aged 55 to 80 years with a 30-pack-year history who currently smoke or quit within the past 15 years should be screened annually with low-dose computed tomography. If you’re a smoker, have a history of smoking or have other risk factors for lung cancer, talk with your doctor about whether you should be screened.
“Please prioritize and don’t postpone cancer screening exams,” McKinney says. “Consistent, annual screening allows providers to compare images year after year to track changes or anomalies. This tracking is important to early detection.”
4. Routine well child or well adolescent visits
The pandemic has been especially difficult for kids, many of whom had to shift to online schooling in order to curb the transmission of the virus. For some kids, this means important signs or symptoms of illness or medical conditions may have been missed. Therefore, it’s important to schedule a well child or well adolescent visit with your pediatrician as soon as possible.
“Well child and well adolescent exams include screening for growth and development and behavioral health conditions, such as autism and depression,” Seidman says. It’s important to stay on top of all these conditions to ensure that your child is growing well and on target developmentally. Early intervention for the many conditions that can arise in childhood and adolescence can set your child up for a much brighter future.
In addition to looking for potential developmental concerns, well visits are a good time to get routine childhood vaccinations that can protect your child from illnesses they don’t have to get such as chickenpox and measles.
5. Elective procedures
“Elective” procedures, such as joint replacements, may have been canceled because of the pandemic, but it doesn’t mean you don’t still need that procedure.
Contact your doctor to get back on track in taking care of any ongoing conditions. In most places, it’s now safe to visit your doctor again or to take care of screenings and other routine or elective care needs.
Don’t delay improving your health any longer, Johnson says. “While heart disease and cancer are deadly, there are a lot of things we can do to prevent death, and that’s why screenings are important. Screening provides early recognition — we’re trying to discover the presence of an illness before it has a chance to do damage.”
6. Dental cleanings and exams
The UK-based Oral Health Foundation reports that according to an April 2021 survey, 20 million dental appointments have been delayed or canceled since March of 2020. Nearly half of respondents — 45% — reported dental appointment or treatment delays within the last 12 months.
It’s true that the risk of transmission of COVID increases when in close proximity to another person, such as occurs during a routine dental exam and cleaning. But it’s definitely time to schedule those appointments now, as most dental offices have successfully navigated safety protocols that protect patients and their hygienists and dentists.
It’s important to keep up with routine dental care, the American Dental Association reports, because your dentist can often spot the first signs of more chronic health conditions that extend well beyond the mouth, such as diabetes, heart disease, AIDS, nutritional deficiencies, infections and even some autoimmune disorders that start with lesions or other oral problems.
Dentists typically recommend a professional cleaning every six months as these are the only way to completely remove tartar build up and the bacteria that clings to it. At a bare minimum, you should be visiting the dentist at least once per year for a check-up and cleaning.
7. Eye exams
They say the eyes are the window to the soul, but really, they’re a window into your overall health and wellness.
When peering into your eyes, an eye doctor can sometimes spot signs of other conditions affecting another parts of the body such as:
— High blood pressure and other vascular issues.
— High cholesterol.
— Autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis or lupus.
— Certain kinds of cancer.
— Neurological problems or brain tumors.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology also notes that ophthalmologists are always available to treat urgent or emergency issues, such as:
— An eye injury, even one that’s seemingly minor.
— Changes to vision such as blurriness or the presence of wavy lines or blank spots in your field of vision.
— New floaters or flashes in your vision.
— A red eye or eye pain especially if it’s accompanied by a headache, nausea or vomiting.
7 health screenings you need now:
1. Routine physical exams.
2. Mental health screenings.
3. Cancer screenings.
4. Routine well child or well adolescent visits.
5. Elective procedures.
6. Dental cleanings and exams.
7. Eye exams.
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Update 06/08/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.