This summer I finally got caught up on routine medical screening tests and exams that were delayed during the COVID-19 shutdown. My health care providers reached out to reschedule as soon as the situation improved, but still, things took time. And as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to be of concern, I want to encourage people tempted to delay care, especially for chronic or urgent health issues, not to do so.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that by June of last year 41% of adults delayed care because of concerns about COVID-19. And delaying or avoiding care might make existing conditions worse or you might miss new, potentially serious issues that arise. It seems there's truth to Ben Franklin's saying, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Recently, I interviewed Dr. Christopher DeSimone, a cardiac electrophysiologist at Mayo Clinic. We talked about the issue of delaying care in regards to people with atrial fibrillation (AFib), which is a problem with the heart's electrical system. It causes fast and/or irregular heartbeats and can reduce how well your heart pumps. The condition increases your risk of stroke, heart failure and other issues. People who have AFib may have no symptoms at all or they may feel a variety of different symptoms including fatigue, light headedness, irregular heartbeats, racing heartbeats, a quivering sensation in the heart, shortness of breath and chest pain. Symptoms of AFib can destroy quality of life.
DeSimone says that people who have AFib should not delay care, even if they don't have symptoms. Because left untreated, the condition not only makes you feel lousy and increases your risk of stroke, but also it becomes harder to treat successfully.
"There are studies out there that are sending a strong signal that even if you don't have symptoms, addressing AFib earlier is better," says DeSimone. "That's because if we can start modifying risk factors or things that might trigger AFib, such as obstructive sleep apnea or too much coffee or alcohol, and if we intervene early with treatments to stop the irregular heartbeats, we may be able to prevent long-term complications. It's much easier to treat AFib early on than wait until damage has been done."
DeSimone is passionate about early intervention. He also wants people with AFib to know that a new method of treating the condition appears to be more effective.
"In the past, studies showed that if you had AFib with or without symptoms, you could stay in that irregular heart rhythm as long as your heart rate did not reach a certain level," says DeSimone. "We're learning that people should not go on for long periods of time in persistent abnormal rhythms because it may cause continued damage, making it harder to treat. Instead, we need to get people into normal heart rhythm early on when treatment is easier to do."
DeSimone says treatments include medication and ablations. During an ablation procedure, the experts run a catheter from an entry point in a blood vessel at your groin up to the heart. Once there, they either freeze or burn the tissue, causing a scar around the spot where the electrical misfiring is happening. That prevents the malfunctioning electrical signal from reaching the rest of the heart tissue.
"It's sort of like caging a tiger or cutting a fire line in a forest to prevent spread," says DeSimone.
Atrial fibrillation is just one example of how delaying care might negatively impact your health long term. If you have appointments, keep them unless otherwise instructed by your health care provider. Maintaining your health is too valuable to avoid or delay care.
Vivien Williams is a video content producer for NewsMD and the host of "Health Fusion." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.