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COVID-19: No need to fear a visit to the doctor or hospital

Despite – or because of – COVID-19, family doctors and emergency departments and hospitals in general are experiencing a worrying decline in patient numbers. We tell you why it’s safe to seek medical assistance and when you really should go to the doctor.

Text: Helwi Braunmiller; photo: Sanitas

These are extraordinary times, also for the healthcare sector. While some hospitals are working flat-out to treat people with COVID-19, doctors in private practice and emergency departments are seeing a worrying decline in patients. Adrian Rohrbasser’s practice in Wil is no exception. “At the moment we’re seeing around 10% fewer patients than usual. Many of my colleagues report that patient numbers are down as much as 30 and 50%.” Apparently one of the groups of patients going to the doctor much less frequently are those with acute joint or back pain. Dr Rohrbasser says he’s had patients with severe shoulder pain who have refused point blank to come to his surgery, prolonging their suffering and pain.

But he and his colleagues are also very worried about other patients who should absolutely be continuing to go to the doctor.

When you must keep going to the doctor

  • If you take blood thinners: “Patients with chronic conditions are especially vulnerable in terms of COVID-19. Fear of infection are doubtless one of the reasons these people have stopped coming,” says Rohrbasser. In particular patients on blood thinners who need to have their medication adjusted regularly should turn up for their appointments.
  • Cardiac insufficiency (heart problems): Here too the right medication is crucial, and requires a lot of skill and sensitivity – which means a visit to the doctor.
  • Diabetes: Diabetics who are on the wrong dosage and whose readings are too high or too low shouldn’t postpone their next visit to the doctor.
  • Minor symptoms that initially appear undramatic: “Minor signs of temporary paralysis or loss of field of vision can appear harmless at first, but they could be indications of an upcoming stroke,” warns Dr Rohrbasser. You must go to the doctor!
  • Prolonged symptoms such as diarrhoea lasting four weeks or gradual weight loss: Here too you must absolutely see a doctor.
  • Mental and emotional problems: “If you feel under serious stress, sad and listless, make sure to talk about it with your doctor, especially in the current situation,” advises Wil-based family doctor Rohrbasser.

He attributes people’s reluctance to go to the doctor to statements from the Federal Office of Public Health regarding the risk of overloading the healthcare system, which were initially very rigid. “Besides fear of infection, many patients now worry about becoming an additional strain on the system,” says Rohrbasser. But he explains that fears of getting infected at a medical practice are unfounded. At his Medbase practice in Wil they’re doing the same as most other medical centres at the moment, dividing patients into two groups: one group of people with infectious diseases, and one group with chronic conditions or pain but no infectious disease. The former only come to the surgery in the afternoon, while patients with non-infectious or chronic conditions come only in the morning. Each of these two groups is assigned its own waiting area, is given treatment in different rooms, and even uses a different entrance.

When you don’t have to go to the doctor in person

“Patients with minor infections and cold symptoms can phone for advice so that their doctor can assess whether they might have COVID-19 or not,” explains Rohrbasser. Every day he still gets several of these calls from people of all ages. He's noticing an increasing number of younger people with suspicions of COVID-19. Healthcare workers in particular want to know, and should know, whether they have COVID-19: the disease itself often, thankfully, causes only minor systems in people who are otherwise healthy.  GP Adrian Rohrbasser supports these patients by phone. “We now know that the critical time for a worsening in the condition is five to seven days after the first symptoms appear,” he explains. “Many of those affected promise to get in touch of their own accord during this period, while with others we agree a time to call them to find out how they are doing.”

When you - or your child - should go to hospital

If your child has severe symptoms or doesn’t seem to be getting any better, you must go to A&E or your paediatrician. You will still receive safe and professional medical care – regardless of COVID-19. And there is a very low risk that your child will catch COVID-19. However, if you’re worried, give your doctor or hospital a call first and they will explain where and how your child will be seen and treated.

If you feel sick  and are experiencing symptoms such as severe stomach ache, pain or tightening in the chest, cold sweats or shortness of breath or if you suddenly experience problems with your vision, paralysis or dizziness, don’t think twice about going to A&E! The risk that you will catch the coronavirus is far lower than the risk of suffering permanent, severe health consequences as a result of an untreated illness.