Time for a medical tune up
Maintenance on our cars -- changing the oil, checking the tire pressure -- keeps them running longer. The same goes for us.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused many to defer maintenance on themselves. Afraid of the virus, some of us have avoided going to the doctor for almost a year, missing important screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies. Even if they're not fearful of contracting COVID-19, some folks have run into health care delays. Their hospital is full. Their doctor isn't performing elective procedures.
And worse still, those who have lost their jobs may also have lost their health insurance.
Experts fear that the pandemic, in addition to causing an economic recession, is causing a recession in health. According to a study published in the Journal of the National Medical Association in December, 43% of Americans have missed at least one preventive care appointment during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates life expectancy has fallen by one year since the start of the pandemic. For people of color, the impact is likely even greater.
So, how do we get ourselves and our loved ones back on track?
Take baby steps
Small steps are better than no steps at all, especially now that cases of the virus appear to be ebbing and vaccines are becoming more available.
As a first step, check in with your doctor's office to find out whether they are seeing patients in the office, or if you can schedule a telehealth visit. Most insurance plans, including Medicare Advantage plans, are covering telehealth services.
Doctors' offices carefully observe virus protocols, providing hand sanitizer at the check-in desk and performing temperature screenings. If you are overseeing health care for a senior family member, it would be a good idea for someone to accompany them.
It's also a good idea to double-mask when going to the doctor (or anywhere you're likely to be in proximity to nonfamily members for longer than 15 minutes).
When you check in with your health care provider, have your most recent prescriptions at hand and know whether you need them to be reauthorized.
Health insurance coverage
The pandemic has created a crisis in health care coverage, with some 7.7 million Americans losing their health insurance along with their jobs. When you include their dependents, the number rises to 15 million.
If you fall into this category, seeking health care is downright frightening because you don't know how much you might be responsible for. But again, deferring maintenance on yourself may lead to more serious problems later if, say, your Type 2 diabetes is out of control, or you are developing hypertension.
The good news is you can find help. Because of the pandemic, the federal government extended the Affordable Care Act (ACA) enrollment period until May 15. Illinois and 38 other states (including the District of Columbia) expanded Medicaid access under the ACA, so it pays to find out if you are eligible. Visit healthcare.gov for the latest details.
If your loved ones are far away
Our parents and grandparents may need help masking up, getting to doctors' appointments and, once there, understanding (and remembering) the doctor's advice and instructions. If you live nearby and can accompany them, that's a great option.
But what if you live far away? The American Senior Housing Association estimates 15% of caregivers are long-distance, averaging a distance of 450 miles away.
Options may include enlisting neighbors and friends to help support your loved one. Patient advocates -- who usually have medical backgrounds -- can help you and your loved one navigate confusing health care choices. Be sure to ask lots of questions about experience, cost, availability and services provided.
There are also free resources. A good place to start is www.Advoconnection.com
Take care of yourself and your loved ones
It's always important to maintain your ties with your health care providers, but that's especially true in this pandemic. COVID-19 has now claimed 500,000 lives, but some experts estimate the toll is 200,000 to 300,000 more when you include preventable deaths.
We all are feeling some measure of anxiety and fear. But remember there are steps you can take to maintain your health and that of your family members.
• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). She recently created a three-month training course for nurses who wish to become patient advocates (see https://nurseadvocateentrepreneur.com). You can contact her at (312) 788-2640.