With many public health officials continuing their pleas for Americans to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19, they are also encouraging people with emergent or chronic conditions not to delay medical care. Primary care physicians and other specialists are seeing a slow, but steady, return of patients to their offices, amid enhanced safety precautions to protect against the virus.
“When the pandemic began last March and lockdowns occurred, our patients with chronic diseases had to manage those conditions by themselves with little available guidance other than what they knew before the lockdown,” said Juliet Vento, M.D., a Baptist Health Primary Care physician at Baptist Health’s new wellness and medical complex in Plantation. “That was OK for about three weeks, as they continued with their treatment plans and medications, but as the lockdowns persisted and medications ran out, the threat of adverse reactions in these patients increased.”
Limited Access to Care
A study presented at the 46th Argentine Congress of Cardiology last November showed that the number of patients admitted to the emergency department of a hospital in Buenos Aires during Argentina’s three-month lockdown from March to June 2020 was 57 percent less than the number of patients admitted during the same period in 2019. The number of patients was also 54 percent less than had come to the emergency department during the three months prior to the lockdown. Similar scenarios played out at Baptist Health and other hospitals across the United States.
High Blood Pressure
Additionally, study researchers noted that 391 patients, or 24 percent of those admitted to the Buenos Aires’ hospital emergency department during the three-month lockdown had high blood pressure, or hypertension, no matter what their reason for seeking medical care was. The researchers showed this percentage was substantially higher than in the same period in 2019 when it was 18 percent. They also compared the lockdown percentage to the three months prior when it was 15 percent, noting the significant increase between these two periods.
Dr. Vento says the increase in high blood pressure during the lockdown likely resulted from people with hypertension and other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, being unable to access their prescriptions and their doctors for proper management. She adds that psychosocial factors likely contributed as well.
“People were isolated and depressed, worried about their financial situations and unable to see their doctors,” she said. “Additionally, people were home all day. Many overate and weren’t getting the exercise they were used to in their normal routines. For many people, this led to weight gain. All of these factors combined can increase stress and high blood pressure.”
Complications of High Blood Pressure
Dr. Vento says that high blood pressure – anything over 130/80 mm Hg, according to the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association – can lead to chronic kidney disease, heart disease, heart failure, hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), heart attack, dementia and stroke. That’s why it’s important to manage chronic high blood pressure through lifestyle changes and medications.
“When patients with high blood pressure and other chronic diseases resumed their appointments with us after the lockdown,” Dr. Vento said, “many were at a breaking point with super-elevated blood pressure and uncontrolled blood sugars that needed immediate attention and treatment to reach healthier levels. It was really eye-opening.”
Turning Point of COVID-19 Pandemic
Recently, a better understanding of the virus and how to prevent it, along with the rollout of vaccination programs, have calmed fears somewhat and paved the way back to a focus on the prevention and management of chronic diseases.
“We’ve learned a lot in the past 10 months about how to manage chronic diseases, like high blood pressure, during a pandemic,” Dr. Vento said. “Thankfully, with enhanced cleaning measures, social distancing and mask wearing, and with the ability to visit their doctors in person or online through telemedicine platforms, people feel more comfortable again about resuming their regular care, including annual checkups.”
She recommends people who skipped their annual physicals in 2020 to schedule one soon. She encourages people who remain fearful of contracting COVID-19 to speak with their doctors about telemedicine appointments, which are available from Baptist Health Primary Care physician offices.
“It’s so important to have that annual checkup and to manage high blood pressure, diabetes, heart failure and other chronic diseases through regular doctor visits, monitoring of blood pressure, blood sugar and fluid retention,” she said. “We’ve reached a point in the pandemic that people can follow the recommendations to protect themselves from the virus, while continuing to manage chronic diseases and their overall health.”
Book an appointment
Now more than ever, it’s important to establish a relationship with a primary care doctor – someone who will get to know you and your healthcare needs. Baptist Health Primary Care providers can help guide and manage your overall health and wellness, both in-person and through virtual visits. Our doctors and advanced practitioners aid in the early detection of disease and long-term health problems, help address any worrisome symptoms, manage chronic conditions, prescribe medications and advise on achieving overall health goals. Should you require specialized care, we provide access to Baptist Health’s comprehensive network of expert physicians and resources, keeping your health at the heart of what we do.