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People Who Don't Have COVID But Need Medical Attention Are Waiting Longer To Get Care

Photo of empty chairs in a hospital corridor
Михаил Руденко via iStock
Hospitals are reporting 30-60% reductions in patient admissions. It's likely due to patients opting for telehealth options, postponing treatment or forgoing care altogether, said Dr. Adam Balls with Intermountain Healthcare.

Utah’s hospitals have seen a sharp reduction in patient admissions over the last two months. Across the Intermountain Healthcare system, for example — the largest in Utah — 50% fewer patients are going to the emergency room, according to Dr. Adam Balls, emergency department chair at Intermountain Medical Center.

Some of that decline was by design, following the state’s month-long ban on non-emergency procedures such as joint replacements, but Balls said it’s also because patients are choosing to stay away. 

It’s a concerning trend — one that hospitals around the world are seeing. People seem to be coming in sicker than usual, with more severe symptoms than if they had sought care earlier, Balls said. With some illnesses, waiting just a day or two to get care can cause serious complications, resulting in longer, more difficult hospital stays or even death. 

At St. Mark’s Hospital in Millcreek, an otherwise-healthy adult man under the age of 60 died after complications from cellulitis, a common and treatable bacterial skin infection, according to Dr. Isaac Noyes, a hospitalist there. The patient had delayed seeking treatment and by the time he came to the hospital the infection had deteriorated, requiring surgical cleaning. By then, it was too late.

“That’s nobody’s fault,” Noyes said. “It’s very understandable that patients are afraid or trying to follow recommendations, but we want people to feel safe seeking care.”

Across MountainStar hospitals, which operate in Utah and 20 other states, delays are causing a higher death rate from coronary artery disease, according to Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Baumann. 

Even delayed cases that have been successfully treated — such as those resulting in ruptured appendixes and diabetic patients falling into ketoasidosis — still required more intense care than if those patients had come in earlier. 

The reason patients are avoiding the hospital isn’t explicitly known yet. But it is almost certainly because the fear of contracting COVID-19 in the hospital is outweighing other medical concerns, said Dr. Jeremy Voros, medical director of St. Mark’s emergency department. He said he’s heard directly from patients about that dilemma, and it’s understandable. 

“The hospital is a different place,” Voros said. “We’ve had to limit access, screen everybody who comes in. The overall situation is just a lot less hospitable than it used to be.” 

He said that contributes to an environment where people are a little more wary. Balls with Intermountain said it affects doctors, too.

“We’re all still human and we all still have the same inherent fear,” Balls said. “When I took care of COVID-19 patients in our respiratory units a couple of nights ago, there’s still that worry when I go home to my own family.”

Still, Balls said the general population shouldn’t be worried about contracting the virus in state hospitals. He said the steps taken to reduce the risk of spreading the virus — such as treating patients with COVID-19 in separate units and limiting visitors — are keeping hospitals safe.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

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