Reluctance to seek medical help during the pandemic may be deadly

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Patients requiring care but differing may miss an opportunity to be assessed holistically. Photo: Melinda Stuurman
Patients requiring care but differing may miss an opportunity to be assessed holistically. Photo: Melinda Stuurman


“I am not going to the hospital because I will not come back alive,” said a Covid-19 positive patient.

My ears are still ringing from a call from a friend who has been trying to convince a patient to seek medical assistance. The distraught friend, a Covid-19 survivor and medical professional, was shocked to hear that the person she was trying to convince to go to the nearest hospital had died about an hour later.

The pandemic has created a fear of the health facilities, even among people in dire need of healthcare. A survey conducted in the US revealed that 57% of respondents “strongly agreed or somewhat agreed” with the statement that: “I would be hesitant to go to the doctor’s office/hospital for an emergency when the Covid-19 cases are high in my area.”

I have witnessed similar incidents and heard stories of people being reluctant to seek medical attention or refusing to be admitted to the hospital during this pandemic. There are various reasons behind the reluctance, one being the fear of getting exposed to the coronavirus while seeking medical attention.

READ: The practice of medicine is inherently risky, not everything is predictable

The reason that stands out for me is the Covid-19 positive patients who refuse to go to a hospital because of the fear of dying while there. There are stories doing the rounds on social media generalising fatal outcomes for infected patients admitted to hospitals. 

Fear to seek medical attention may be compounded by information about long waiting times for hospital beds and various media reports about the health system buckling under the pandemic pressure.

Indeed, we discourage people from seeking unnecessary care during this period to avoid exhausting the limited capacity. Inappropriate contact with the health system may increase one’s exposure to Covid-19. Patients requiring care but differing may miss an opportunity to be assessed holistically, get investigations done, and an individualised care plan prescribed.

Those suffering from other chronic diseases – including mental health – should be encouraged to continue seeking help and discuss their challenges and alternative care plans with their healthcare service providers.

Healthcare workers are doing their best to take care of the high number of patients seeking help, especially in hospitals. The demand for hospital beds surpasses the available capacity, especially in Gauteng. Disinformation, uncertainty and the experience of losing loved ones while receiving care may play a role in patients’ health-seeking behaviour.

READ: Is Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy a threat to SA’s economy?

More people are buying pulse oximeters to monitor their oxygen levels at home. It’s important to remember that these medical devices should not be used without guidance because the readings should not be interpreted in isolation.

People should empower themselves with knowledge from credible sources and keep in mind the possibility of a demand-driven supply of unreliable medical products and devices.

Fear is understandable during this period, but it should not paralyse people. It’s essential to remember that people are still dying from heart attacks and other life-threatening conditions while we are social distancing.

Of note, the cost of deferring care may lead to accelerated disease progression, complications and premature death. Various studies show the negative impact of deferred care during the pandemic, and these include the decrease in cancer referrals and the global worsening of maternal and foetal outcomes.

Healthcare facilities have put measures in place to minimise the risk of the Covid-19 transmissions and patients needing care should consult their service providers to minimise preventable fatal consequences. Health service providers have an active role to play in allaying fears by using health communication that is targeted, simple and informed by research.

Kubheka is a co-founder of Health IQ Consulting, which provides risk management, quality and ethics services in the health sector. She is a researcher in public health, patient safety and ethics


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