How COVID-19 Has (and Hasn’t) Changed Primary Care
When COVID-19 struck, it placed telehealth at the forefront of outpatient care; the switch to virtual visits was the most feasible way to keep people safe. Some experts had their doubts over the effectiveness of the platform, while others raved about the advantages.
Offices are now back to a majority of in-person visits, so we sat down with Jefferson Health Family Medicine Physician Dr. Steven Sirken to discuss how the pandemic has impacted the face of primary care.
Have your responsibilities changed?
No, not in any significant way, says Dr. Sirken. The biggest change is the one you could guess: he has done more telehealth visits than ever before. Most aspects of caring for patients virtually are the same as they would be in-person.
“I still practice medicine the same way that I have for almost 30 years,” said Dr. Sirken. “However, now, when someone is showing signs of a respiratory illness, we have another possible diagnosis thrown in the mix; we always have to take COVID-19 into consideration.”
How have patient visits changed since offices re-opened?
During the first two months of re-opening – May and June – there was a decrease in patient visits that mirrored rates throughout the country, says Dr. Sirken. “I think a lot of people were hesitant and maybe even scared; remember, for the most part, they were told to stay home. As COVID-19 cases decreased over the summer, people gradually became more comfortable with coming in.”
Luckily, for most offices, visits have returned to pre-pandemic numbers. Jefferson’s Primary & Specialty Care offices, specifically, have modified their check-in process and sanitization protocols to limit patient volume and safely accommodate in-person visits, adds Dr. Sirken. All patients are screened for COVID-19 in advance, required to wear masks, and socially distanced in waiting rooms.
What about accessibility to care?
Aside from typical in-person visits, the volume of telehealth visits for possible COVID-19 infections is still high, says Dr. Sirken. This, unfortunately, can limit accessibility to care for other concerns. In some cases, this leads patients to the urgent care setting, rather than to their primary care doctor.
Why can’t telehealth be the only method of delivering care?
Telehealth has been incredibly beneficial to both patients and providers during these unprecedented times, explains Dr. Sirken, however, it is naturally restrictive in terms of being able to diagnose certain conditions. “There is still a necessity for physical examination; without it, many things can go missed.”
What’s the bottom line?
People need to still seek medical care when they’re feeling unwell, whether it is through their primary care doctor, a local urgent care center, or even the emergency room, depending on the severity of the symptoms, adds Dr. Sirken. While these settings may appear different due to COVID-19, physicians and other healthcare professionals still have the same core goal: keeping you healthy.
Additionally, people must continue to wear their masks, sanitize their hands, avoid in-person gatherings, and avoid exposing vulnerable, immunocompromised individuals as much as possible.
“We will get through this crisis together, as long as we prioritize the health of ourselves and our communities,” said Dr. Sirken.