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Survey: 20% of U.S. adults would avoid emergency care due to pandemic

Survey: 20% of U.S. adults would avoid emergency care due to pandemic
Survey respondents said they would avoid emergency treatment, even with heart attack symptoms, because of the pandemic. File photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 19 (UPI) -- About one in five adults would avoid going to the hospital due to fears of COVID-19 exposure even if they are experiencing symptoms of emergency medical conditions, a survey published Thursday by JAMA Network Open found.

Among 933 adults respondents from across the United States, 17% indicated that if they had heart attack symptoms, they still would "prioritize avoidance of COVID-19 exposure" in the emergency room and not seek treatment, the data showed.

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Just over 25% said they would make the same decision with appendicitis symptoms, the researchers said.

Those who would opt against emergency medical treatment cited concerns over contracting COVID-19 from other patients or the staff in crowded emergency rooms, according to the researchers.

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"Fear of becoming infected with COVID-19 in healthcare settings has led many people to forego medical tests and consultations," study co-author Brennan Spiegel told UPI in an email.

"On the one hand, this is understandable because people are hardwired to ... avoid infections, but on the other hand, avoiding necessary care can lead to severe, and even catastrophic, health outcomes," said Spiegel, a professor of medicine and public health at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

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Many hospitals and healthcare facilities discontinued non-essential treatment services during the pandemic to limit spread of the virus and ensure they had sufficient staff to manage patients with COVID-19.

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However, they continued to provide care to patients with life-threatening conditions, while taking precautions to limit risk.

In addition, several studies have found that a significant number of people across the country avoided these medical facilities over the past 18 months because they were concerned about being exposed to the virus.

For this survey, Spiegel and his colleagues surveyed 933 adults in the United States using an online questionnaire.

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Respondents were questioned across a roughly one-year period, beginning June 1 last year and ending May 31, the researchers said.

They were asked specifically whether they would seek emergency care if they experienced symptoms of a heart attack, such as chest pain, or appendicitis, such as severe abdominal pain, according to the researchers.

Those with a "usual source of care," such as a regular primary care physician or specialist, were about 50% less likely to avoid seeking emergency treatment during the pandemic, the data showed.

This is likely due to their having more access to high-quality care, more experience in navigating healthcare systems and more established relationships with providers, the researchers said.

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"During the COVID-19 pandemic and future infectious outbreaks, healthcare systems and public health organizations should develop communication strategies for patients and the community at large that describe the institutions' safety measures," Spiegel said.

These can "reassure [the public] and encourage [them to pursue] timely healthcare for critical and routine needs," he said.

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