With California “reopening” and lifting its mask mandate in a variety of public places for vaccinated individuals, it’s high time for a summer of socializing: at barbeques, swimming pools, and concerts. Yet amidst all the fun, people need to play catch-up with their health.
Just a few months ago, before mass vaccinations, the notion of going to see a doctor for preventive care was not much of a consideration. Why risk it? Certainly, a majority Americans put off non-essential health care during the pandemic, which began in March 2020 as businesses and medical offices shut down. Elective surgeries were postponed. Routine dermatology screenings were scrubbed. As were important preventive care appointments, such as dental and vision.
But now, with roughly two-thirds of California’s population fully or partially vaccinated against COVID-19 as of June 10, people are feeling much more confident to go back and see their medical providers. However, it’s far from smooth sailing. On the one hand, many individuals have their own laundry list of preventive care needs that fell by the wayside during the pandemic, and it takes time to schedule appointments and visit medical professionals. At the same time, the medical system itself is struggling with a surge in demand, which makes getting those appointments confirmed no easy task.
The swelling demand for all medical needs is overwhelming the healthcare system in certain areas. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs handled 16.5 million appointments in its system between March and May of this year, up from 9 million for the same period in 2020, an 83% increase, according to the agency. The big jump has prompted the VA to ask for a 10% increase in funding increase from Congress for the new fiscal year, starting in October.
Don't wait for a toothache
For dental, the demand and supply imbalance is acute. “There's a big backlog of dental hygiene treatment,” says Dr. Franklin Woo, dental director for Blue Shield of California. “The hygienists can't accommodate the demand. It will be some months before we see things return to normal.”
The pent-up demand is understandable. For example, in dental, procedures fell nearly 18 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to an analysis of claims processed by Blue Shield of California. The number of paid procedures performed in the calendar year 2020 fell to 1.4 million, down roughly 20% from 2019. This was due to temporary office closures and member hesitancy of returning to provider offices once reopened.
Again, in dental, just as in other sectors, there’s now a surge of demand. Onsite dental services provided by pop-up clinics within the Blue Shield of California’s network show that 80% of patients visiting in 2021 have not been to the dentist in over two years, and 70% of them have cavities. “It’s so important to maintain oral health,” Woo says.
Other areas of preventive care also saw a big drop in volume. In vision, COVID-19 forced the postponement of eye exams, as well as cataracts and laser surgeries.
Even at home, people skimped on the most basic elements of self-care for their eyes, such as replacing contact lenses on a regular basis, notes
Dr. John Lahr, a vice president and medical director at EyeMed Vision Care, a provider within Blue Shield of California’s network. Since many people only wear contacts when they go out and socialize, they were wearing contact lenses less often, and thereby thought they could postpone their replacement schedule. But contact lenses come with a prescribed shelf life, and prolonging wear until one’s eyes hurt from wearing them isn’t a good idea, Lahr warns. Contact lenses eventually clog up, well before any perceptible damage could be done, depriving the cornea of oxygen. “That can lead to all sorts of problems,” Lahr says.
It's not just vision and dental
It's a reminder to seek out care in order to prevent problems from getting worse. In fact, a visit to any medical professional can yield important information on general health. For example, eye exams will catch more serious problems, such as glaucoma, Lahr notes. And they can help uncover other diseases, such as diabetes, lupus, and arthritis.
With diabetes, an unknowing patient could be showing signs of diabetic retinopathy. “By doing that vision plan exam, we can try to get them back into the healthcare system for the necessary treatment,” Lahr says.
So, while you plan some summer fun, make sure to wedge into your schedule the most important medical visits, whether they’re for your teeth, eyes, or general health. It’s all in the name of prevention. It could go a long way to heading off any new conditions, while getting needed attention to any nettlesome ailments you’ve been putting off.