Last week, I joined with others in concern regarding just how this intervening time of isolation has changed us and how those changes will reshape the world that awaits us post-quarantine. A primary area that should be alarming to us all has to be the state of our hospitals and medical centers. They are not only essential in protecting our health and wellness but they also constitute some of the biggest employers in many cities and states. How members of our nation’s hospitals and health systems have selflessly and heroically stepped up to meet the challenges of COVID-19 cannot be overstated. Yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, amid the response to the pandemic, the health care sector lost 1.4 million jobs and had to lay off nearly 135,000 hospital workers across the nation in the month of April.
According to research from the University of North Carolina’s Rural Health Research Program, though rural communities have a disproportionate share of multiple chronic health issues, they had already suffered the loss of needed local medical services even before the pandemic arrived. Already, more than 170 have closed in the last 15 years. Last year, 18 shut down. Twelve more have joined them in the first four months of this year.
As reported last week, in general, hospital losses were said to total as much as $50 billion a month, largely the result of abandoned surgeries and procedures shown to provide a financial stream of revenue critical to staying open. Though restrictions are being lifted on normal procedures, a quick turnaround will not likely be seen.
Arif Sarwari and Christopher Goode are two West Virginia University department of medicine doctors who say they were prepared for a rise in COVID-19 patients but did not expect the sharp decline they witnessed in everyday care. “Did the population of a state that ranks in the bottom of most health indicators suddenly get better?” they write in a recent opinion piece in The Conversation. “Did their lung disease, heart disease and vascular disease improve?”
What is happening is that, in hospitals across the land, people fearing contracting COVID-19 have been choosing not to seek the emergency treatment they need. Cited is a survey released in April that shows that nearly one-third of U.S. adults have delayed medical care or avoided seeking care because of concerns about contracting COVID-19.
“Delaying treatment for acute and chronic conditions comes at a cost, both human and financial,” they write. As an example, they note that a patient with appendicitis who gets treatment early can generally go home two days later. If the same patient waits too long, a more complex surgery is required, and in the worst case, the appendix could burst, resulting in a medical emergency. If a diabetic with a foot infection that is early in the stages waits a week or two longer than usual, there is a greater chance the infection will have reached the bone and could require amputation. “The ultimate cost for delaying treatment can be loss of life,” they write. “Data from the CDC shows the U.S. had 66,000 more deaths than expected from January through the end of April, with only about half of those linked to COVID-19.”
“If you feel you need to see your doctor, go,” they conclude.
What are those things that are keeping us away? Is it the fear, the uncertainty, of a threat that cannot be seen?
“Your nervous system is in overload, so it’s no wonder you don’t know what you’re feeling anymore,” according to a recent New York Times article. Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Northeastern University, recently explained this concept to The New York Times as to our current collective mental state. It is what she calls “experiential blindness.” This has to do with our sensory motor skills and perceptual experience being out of balance.
“Essentially, our brain takes cues from what our body is doing at any moment,” the Times continues. “If our heart rate goes up, the brain parses info about whether we’re running from a lion or merely walking up the stairs. From there, the brain reacts — often in the form of emotions. However, we rely on our memories to tell us that indeed, this is the drab flight of stairs to our walk-up. Most of us, however, have never been through a global pandemic. There are no previous memories for our brain to draw on.
“It’s fine just to take some time to think about what is happening and how you feel. Just be aware that constant rumination or getting stuck in negative thoughts may be a sign that it’s time to reach out to a mental health professional,” says the Times.
Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, explains it this way: “There’s a lot more coming at us and fewer ways to discharge it than ever.” And skip the punching bag or scream session in dealing with it. It may make you feel even worse.
“Merely venting negative emotions by screaming or yelling does not have any health benefits,” Lennis Echterling, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at James Madison University tells the Times.
Hospitals and caregivers are not to be feared. So please do not forgo important care, such as chronic disease management, which can jeopardize your health and your future.