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Area health care providers remind patients of the importance of seeking medical services to address chronic and acute health conditions as Pennsylvania begins to lift some of the restrictions enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19. Dennis McGorry, MD, St. Luke’s primary care physician, said the benefit of seeing your doctor during an in-person meeting to manage a chronic illness, such as heart disease, diabetes, and chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, far outweighs any potential risk of exposure to COVID-19. Precautions in place at doctors’ offices and hospitals address patient safety.
Similarly, people should not avoid going to the emergency room or calling 911, he stated. Emergency medicine services (EMS) and emergency room personnel have reported that many people are waiting too long to seek care in emergency situations.
“In some cases, lives have been lost due to patients’ fear of seeking medical care and we need to stop that immediately,” he said. “Especially in the case of patients with symptoms concerning stroke or heart attack, the benefit of being evaluated far exceeds the risk of COVID-19 exposure in a hospital where safety precautions are practiced.”
St. Luke’s physicians, hospitals, outpatient centers, and walk-in care centers, such as St. Luke’s Care Now, are taking extreme measures to protect patients and staff, including wearing masks and separating patients with suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 from other patients.
For example, Dr. McGorry said in his practice, patients with COVID-19 symptoms are directed not to come into the office. Rather, they are screened over the phone and set up for a virtual visit. If it appears that they may have the virus, they are then directed to a St. Luke’s testing location.
Because there is no treatment for COVID-19, patients with mild symptoms are encouraged to recover at home, distance themselves from other family members, and take acetaminophen for symptom relief. Any patients with more severe symptoms of respiratory illness, including those who are COVID-19 positive, are directed to attend one of St. Luke’s six respiratory clinics for further evaluation and treatment for their symptoms.
Even before the first case of COVID-19 surfaced in our community — and every day since — St. Luke’s has been developing ways to better serve patients of all kinds during this unprecedented period, he added.
Among the innovations was the expansion of virtual visits that connect health care providers to patients through a computer, laptop, or tablet, using an on-line meeting program, such as Microsoft Teams meeting.
In response to COVID-19, St. Luke’s greatly and quickly expanded the Network’s virtual visit capabilities so patients could now have an on-line visit with their primary care physician, medical specialist, such as a cardiologist or oncologist, or a physical, occupational, or speech therapist. This major endeavor involved the information technology department, marketing department, office staff members, physicians, and therapists.
“Virtual visits have been a Godsend to get us through the initial COVID-19 period,” Dr. McGorry said. And they will continue to be part of the solution as we continue to practice social distancing. For example, should a patient have an exasperation of a chronic illness, Dr. McGorry might alternate in-office and virtual visits to keep frequent contact with the patient. Also, virtual visits will remain available for those patients who simply prefer it.
“It can’t be overstressed, the importance of the fact that we’re only in the beginning of this process of managing the fallout of the pandemic,” he said. “We anticipate the presence of COVID-19 in our community for months, or even years, to come. It’s important to remember that without the practice of safety precautions, the impact of COVID-19 can — and will continue — to have devastating effects on a community.”
Fortunately, the staff of St. Luke’s has been amazing during this pandemic, he said. At one point, the prevalence of COVID-19 in our area made the Lehigh Valley among the top 25 hot spots in the United States. Fortunately, however, the health providers’ clinical readiness and education efforts, combined with the community’s adherence to social distancing orders and other precautions, successfully reduced the spread.
“Due to everyone’s hard work of staying home, we’ve flattened the curve,” he said.