The last year and a half has been a tremendous adjustment for patients and care providers alike in the COVID era. I remember a patient of mine seeing me for a routine eye check-up, telling me the worst experience of his life was having to have recent open-heart surgery. On asking him more about this difficult time, he told me the worst part was not the pain and danger of the surgery itself, but rather having to be completely alone, without family and friends, during the entire ordeal.
My patient’s experience especially hit home for me when I found myself to be a patient these past few months. Step one, I had to call the doctor’s office to make an appointment; the phone receptionist keeps encouraging me to make a telemedicine appointment, but that’s not what I want. I get it…its safer, no face-to-face contact, no chance of getting COVID, but doesn’t the doctor want to do a physical exam on me? Can he really find out everything he needs to know by phone? From my end, I’m planning to have this doctor perform a procedure on me under anesthesia…I would like to meet him in person and see if I am comfortable trusting him with my health. So I push for an in-person appointment and finally get one a few weeks later.
Fast forward to the day of my procedure. It’s my first time having to go under anesthesia; I’m understandably nervous. My wife comes with me to the surgery center but is told she cannot stay with me in the waiting room or pre-operative area. They will call her to come pick me up when it’s all over. Thankfully, everything turned out ok, but as patients we are already feeling anxiety about our health, but being denied companionship to alleviate some of that anxiety can be exceedingly stressful. I can only imagine how much worse it would be if I were elderly, in a hospital, or undergoing a more serious procedure.
My patient’s experience and my own experience as a patient have reinforced my views on providing health care during the COVID era: that while we want to maximize hygienic practices to avoid COVID, we have to take care to do so in ways that don’t compromise our ability to manage our patient’s ailments, and more importantly in a way that doesn’t compromise our humanity. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, I always endeavor to safely see my patients in-person so that I can do the most thorough examination possible, thereby minimizing the likelihood of my missing anything important. In turn, my patients will have a better feel for myself and my office staff to be certain that we are the right providers for them.
Also, in the safest manner possible, we encourage the presence of a family member during the examination (assuming the patient desires it), both to provide a source of support for patients, and also because sometimes family members ask critical questions which may prove instrumental in the team approach towards patient care.
In the final analysis, I cannot claim to be a public health expert. Navigating patient care in the COVID era is new territory for all of us and time will tell what the best approaches are. I can only tell you my personal philosophy: that while doing everything possible to minimize our patients, staff, and ourselves from getting COVID, we must not compromise taking care of our patient’s physical and mental wellbeing, and most important, we must not lose sight of our humanity.