Take these steps to stay healthy if you have to make a doctor's appointment right now.

By Claire Gillespie
May 15, 2020
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The country is gradually emerging from lockdown, with almost every state rolling out phased reopening plans for schools, entertainment venues, and non-essential retailers. But what about a doctor's office, hospital, or outpatient facility for non-coronavirus care? When are they reopening, and is it risky to go right now?

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During stay-at-home orders, many doctors closed their offices or outpatient spaces entirely, or they only offered telemedicine appointments. Meanwhile, hospitals have been focusing on providing lifesaving care to COVID-19 patients and other emergency cases. As a result, non-emergency treatment, such as elective surgeries and general checkups, have been postponed. 

Doctor's offices and hospitals have always been thought of as safe places. But it’s totally understandable to feel apprehensive about getting health care right now. Here’s what experts want you to know about going back to your doctor, ER, or outpatient facility for non-COVID-19 visits and treatment. 

When will my doctor reopen for non-coronavirus patients?

It depends on where you live and what kind of appointment you need. If you’re waiting to schedule elective surgery, whether that goes ahead depends on your state government. “We’re not moving ahead with elective surgeries until we are given authorization from the governor and Department of Health to do so,” Andrew Rubin, senior vice president for clinical affairs and ambulatory care at NYU Langone Health, tells Health. “Right now, most cases that are moving forward are those that qualify as urgent or medically necessary.” 

Rubin says that some of the urgent or medically necessary procedures NYU Langone Health is now doing were delayed at the start of the pandemic as long as 90 days, including certain cancer procedures and surgeries, neurologic testing and treatment, and cardiac prosecutes and surgeries. 

Typically, your local county health authority, in consultation with your state, will give guidance to facilities about when and how to reopen. “The ‘when to open’ will rest with the authorities, along with recommended or regulatory mandated guidelines, and the the ‘how we will open’ will be nuanced by the physicians and facility providers,” former hospital CEO, health care advisor, and biomedical ethicist Michael Hunn tells Health.

After restricting their practice to emergency care, Diagnostic and Interventional Spinal Care (DISC) in Newport Beach, California, has now returned to general surgical procedures to treat urgent cases as well as people in severe pain. “Over the coming weeks, we will return to full-spectrum pain management as well,” Robert S. Bray, Jr., MD, DISC founding director, tells Health. 

NYC-based gynecologist Rebecca C. Brightman, MD, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, opened up her private practice to patients for non-urgent matters and routine visits on May 11. “We’re following guidelines outlined by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), New York State, and the Department of ob-gyn at the Mount Sinai Healthcare system,” Dr. Brightman tells Health. 

“Some physicians aren’t ready to see patients, and a lot of that has to do with the type of medicine they practice,” adds Dr. Brightman. “If I wasn't comfortable about seeing my patients, I wouldn't.” 

What precautions are health care providers taking to keep patients safe?

Health care providers might be gradually getting back to normal in some parts of the country, but new procedures are in place to help reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. At NYU Langone Health, all providers, staff, and patients are screened for COVID-19 symptoms at the entrance of the facility, including a temperature check with a “no-touch” thermometer. All patients are required to wear a mask or face covering, and social distancing measures are enforced in waiting areas, says Rubin.  

Extensive protective and preventive measures are also in place at DISC. All employees are tested on a weekly basis at minimum, and "every patient is tested several days before their surgical procedure to assure that no COVID cases are entered into the facility,” says Dr. Bray.  

Everyone in Dr. Brightman’s office is practicing social distancing, sanitizing, and wearing masks. “We are also screening all patients, employees, physicians, couriers, and anyone else who enters the office with a questionnaire, plus we are recording their temperature,” she says. “If the screening is abnormal, they won’t be allowed into the office.” Appointments are scheduled in a way that minimizes the number of patients in the waiting room at any given time. 

What can patients do to lower their risk at a doctor's office or hospital?

Ahead of your appointment, health care staff should let you know what specific precautions you’re expected to take to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Hunn says patients and visitors should take their temperature and wash their hands before they leave the house, wear a mask in the car on the way, wear gloves when necessary, and avoid touching their faces, especially their nose or eyes. 

“Only show up when you need to and not early,” advises Hunn. “Use doors that automatically open. Try not to touch surfaces. Protect others by remaining six feet apart. Be consistent, and don’t let anyone near you who is not doing the same.” Expect to wear a mask inside the doctor's office or health care facility as well, including during your appointment.

Can patients bring someone with them for support?

Many people might be keen to take a friend or family member with them to a doctor's appointment or hospital visit. But many hospitals and practices are limiting the number of visitors to maintain safety standards. 

“Currently, adults may not be accompanied to their appointment unless our staff determines it is medically necessary, and children may be accompanied by two adult caretakers,” says Rubin, of NYU Langone. But this is an evolving situation, so he advises checking the current visitor policies before your appointment, and calling your doctor’s office with questions if needed.  

When will my doctor's office return to normal?

More than ever, patients want to feel safe in their health care facility, and their physicians want safe environments in which to practice. Depending on how the COVID-19 pandemic plays out—only time will tell whether there will be a second wave of the virus, and we’re still many months, if not longer, away from a vaccine—the new protocol could become the norm. 

“Both patients and surgeons are now looking to more ‘safe’ environments like ambulatory surgery centers and outpatient clinics that can tightly control their environments and their infection control procedures,” says Hunn. 

DISC is one example of the ambulatory surgery center model that can care for patients in a non-COVID environment. “This type of facility in a closed environment provides a very safe available option,” says Dr. Bray. “We have the capability of overnight stay, 24-hour nursing, and all necessary follow-up. And we are going to maintain our limited visiting and limited outside-world contact until this crisis is adequately resolved.”

Bottom line: Like just about everything these days, going to your doctor or another medical setting as the country opens up incurs some risk. But if you have a true medical need, it’s important that you get care and treatment. “Some patients with heart attacks, strokes and sports or orthopedic injuries have avoided getting the proper care, which has caused significant harm and long-term negative effects to their health,” says Hunn.

If you’re not in a high-risk group for the coronavirus and take all the necessary precautions before and during your visit, you can rest assured that your health care provider will be doing everything they can to keep you safe and healthy. 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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