For many of us, the idea of making a doctor’s appointment right now may seem a little risky due to the fear of being exposed to COVID-19. But according to Rubia Sadiq, M.D., an internal medicine physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Adult Care in Benbrook, and Mohammed Ibrahim, M.D., a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Family Care in Plano, putting off health care appointments now — even for routine annual exams — could have serious consequences on your overall health and well-being.
The good news is health care practitioners are adapting to the times and have taken important steps to accommodate their patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadiq and Ibrahim spoke with us about the measures they’re taking to ensure a safe office environment, and how both telemedicine and traditional office appointments are key to treating patients’ health and well-being these days.
Many people are hesitant to make a doctor’s appointment in the current health climate. Considering concerns about safe distancing and other guidelines, what symptoms or chronic conditions should warrant a doctor’s visit right now?
Sadiq: Patients with chronic conditions involving the heart, lungs, or gastrointestinal tract, as well as those taking medications that suppress their immune systems, should contact their doctor’s office for an appointment. Patients treated for chronic conditions who notice a change in their baseline health — for example, shortness of breath for asthma and COPD patients or weight gain and swelling in cardiac patients — should communicate those changes to their physicians’ offices.
Ibrahim: I would add that patients who notice a change in bowels, or experience diarrhea or constipation, be in touch with their doctor’s office, as their condition may require an appointment. The same applies to individuals who may feel mood changes, anxiety or other symptoms of mental illness that may be more prevalent these days.
What advice do you have for an individual about making an appointment for an annual check-up, such as a physical or a Well-Woman exam?
Ibrahim: It’s important that patients don’t put off a physical or well-woman exam, and the same holds true for those with chronic conditions. We have created a safe environment in my practice so patients shouldn’t be concerned about coming into the office at this time. All patients who call to make an exam are screened by phone, their temperatures are taken in the building and we provide a checklist of COVID-19 symptoms — shortness of breath, fever, muscle pain and loss of taste or smell, for example — they complete to ensure they’re not possibly infected before they see a doctor in-person.
Sadiq: Time has proven that a person’s health is their most valued asset. Patients on medications for chronic medical conditions, or new or worsening symptoms of any kind should follow up with their doctors. I believe that people should continue with their doctor visits. If they are hesitant then let their health care providers make that decision to delay or turn their visit into virtual visits. Many things can be missed if you don’t follow the doctors regularly, such as coordination between the different consultants, or their medication adjustments between pharmacies and the doctors. I believe a patient who is on medications for any medical and mental health issues, stable or worsening symptoms, should continue following up with his or her doctor on a regular basis.
What measures are you taking to ensure safety and make patients feel comfortable about seeing the doctor at this time?
Ibrahim: Our team is taking a number of measures to keep patients safe given the current environment. We’re regulating the number of patients we see in our office at a given time. In addition to phone screening, temperature checks and the symptoms checklist I mentioned, we have installed a plexiglass shield at the reception desk. Once patients are checked in, they’re taken immediately to an exam room rather than sitting in a waiting room. They’re also given hand sanitizer and a new mask upon entry.
In addition, my staff and I are wearing extra PPE (personal protective equipment) and using disposable lab coats and gloves, which are discarded after every use. We even use disposable stethoscopes, when appropriate. We wash our hands regularly and sanitize surfaces — including chairs and doorknobs — after every use. We’re taking our employees’ temperatures twice daily, and asking them to stay a safe distance from one another at lunch and during breaks. So, you can see we’ve taken a number of precautions to ensure a healthy office space for our patients, and we encourage them to make an appointment when the need arises.
Are there other policies or procedures that have changed in your office as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Sadiq: We’re screening patients by phone when they call for an appointment. The nurse will note whether the patient may be better suited for a virtual appointment. Those reasons might take the patient’s age into consideration, reason for the appointment and their vaccination status. Depending on those factors, we’ll determine whether a virtual or office visit is recommended.
Patients we see in the office will notice fewer people in the lobby, and we closely regulate patients seen throughout the day to avoid crowding. They are not allowed to bring other family members with them to the appointment. When they check-in, we check their temperatures and ensure they’re wearing face masks. We also ask them questions about travel and respiratory symptoms. We also provide patients with hand sanitizer placed in the lobby and throughout our office suite.
We also have one room in our clinic specifically for patients who may be displaying COVID-related symptoms but further testing is needed to determine if it’s COVID or something else, like the flu. Every person who enters that room, from the nurse to the health care provider, is wearing increased PPE such as an N-95 mask and face shielf for extra protection.
How are virtual doctor visits — or telemedicine — being used to address patient health during the Coronavirus pandemic?
Ibrahim: Telemedicine plays a very important role when treating a patient who is showing potential signs of COVID-19. Many times, we can diagnose their illness virtually without the potential for spreading the illness to other patients or staff. If we believe the patient may have the virus, we refer them to a testing center in North Texas. Telemedicine also is a marvelous tool for treating other illnesses like a cough, cold, flu, UTI, or eye and ear infections. Doctors can make diagnoses based on deductive reasoning, and it benefits the patient who is able to stay home for the visit.
Sadiq: I believe telemedicine is the future of how we treat patients, saving time, effort and energy for both the patient and practitioner. More and more, I’m seeing patients via virtual visits for common issues like minor coughs and sore throats, and medication refills. Many times, I can diagnose and properly treat the patient this way. When we screen patients on their first call to our offices, we can determine whether this is the proper next step or whether a visit to the doctor’s office is warranted.
Are patients becoming more comfortable with virtual office visits, and if so, why?
Ibrahim: Patients are getting more comfortable with virtual visits. As a society, we’re all becoming more accustomed to online meetings, learning, and staying in touch with friends and family, so virtual doctor’s appointments seem more normal than maybe a few years ago.
Sadiq: Yes, patients are becoming more comfortable and they understand why it may be necessary in certain situations. There’s also great benefit for them. They don’t have to take time off from work and can do a virtual visit with their doctor on a break, for example. When patients are sick, virtual visits are simply easier because they don’t need to think through transportation to a doctor’s office. In the future, I think we’ll see telemedicine comprise about 50 percent of our practice.
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