As COVID-19 spreads, Massachusetts hospitals see decline in visits for other illnesses

"I would hate for patients to not have their emergencies treated because of fear of coming to the ED."

 Massachusetts General is a renowned medical center with a just over 1,000 beds and top research facilities. Yet in a sign of the enormous challenge covid-19 poses to the health-care system, even emergency-response teams here are bracing for an outbreak that seemed increasingly likely to test staff and resources. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Josh Reynolds for The Washington Post.
–Photo by Josh Reynolds for The Washington Post

As the number of coronavirus cases soars in Massachusetts, some local hospitals have experienced a drop off in visits for other illnesses.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, doctors have seen a decline in “non-acute visits” to the Emergency Department, according to Dr. Ali Raja, executive vice chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at MGH.

“Patients with mild abdominal pain or a sprained ankle aren’t coming in, …  many patients with less severe illnesses just aren’t coming to the ED right now,” Raja told Boston.com in an email Monday.

In Worcester, Director of Public Health Dr. Michael Hirsh told MassLive that the city has experienced an approximate 25 percent drop in patients seeking treatment for illnesses such as heart disease and appendicitis.

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Both Raja and Hirsh believe the change is due to the public’s concerns about contracting coronavirus at a health care facility.

The state Department of Public Health has logged 5,752 cases so far, of which 453 required hospitalization and another 3,696 are under investigation. As of Monday afternoon, 56 people had died from COVID-19 complications in the commonwealth.

And aside from emergency room matters, some hospital visits and procedures have reduced in volume because they are temporarily not allowed. Under a March 15 executive order, DPH Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel banned all nonessential elective medical procedures until Gov. Charlie Baker lifts the coronavirus state of emergency.

But for those would-be emergency room patients, experts say there could be ramifications to come for patients putting off medical treatment.

“In the coming months, we may see the downstream effect of this, with delayed presentations of severe illnesses,” Raja said. “Or, we may see that telemedicine is really effective at keeping people from having to come to the ED, and it could be the new model of urgent and emergency care.”

COVID-19 should not keep patients from going to the hospital, experts say.

“If you believe that you have a medical emergency, you should come to the ED,” Raja said. “With community spread of COVID-19 and proper precautions in hospitals, you don’t run a higher chance of catching it here than elsewhere, and I would hate for patients to not have their emergencies treated because of fear of coming to the ED.”

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For those who do seek hospital treatment, Raja also has a request.

“If you do come to an ED and we are able to discharge you, consider calling or stopping by the blood donation center on your way out — we’re all running short of blood and, if they have room for you, today is a great day to donate,” he said.

The American Red Cross has also said eligible blood and platelet donors are needed as the number of blood drives has dwindled in recent weeks.

“Since schools, colleges, and many worksites are closed now due to the coronavirus, there are fewer opportunities to give blood, so we’re working around the clock to add more opportunities, so that everybody who wants to give blood is able to do so,” Holly Grant, regional CEO of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, said Saturday.


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