Some Non-COVID Patients In Wisconsin Are Asked For Patience In Obtaining Care

Apr 10, 2020

For this Bubbler Talk, we look into health care services for non-COVID-19 patients. A listener reached out to WUWM to tell us her health care provider had canceled her surgery, leaving her in pain.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association and individual health care outlets have talked about delaying elective or non-essential surgery to save resources for patients with the coronavirus. Medical groups say they don’t make the decision lightly, and it’s based on a team review of patients.

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But what about non-surgical health services? Through the American Lung Association, WUWM connected with Gail, who asked that we just use her first name. She lives in eastern Wisconsin.

“Last May, May of 2019, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 adenocarcinoma,” Gail shares. That’s a type of cancer that begins in mucus-secreting glands.

She says it affected her lungs and had surgery last July. Gail had a follow-up CT (computed tomography) medical imaging scan in fall, but her latest scan was postponed — from this month to June.

“I feel a little apprehensive at times about having to wait to June," she says. "Just because I feel like I have a little bit of upper back discomfort and sometimes I feel I have some mucus in my chest or heaviness in my chest."

At the same time, Gail says she doesn’t want to go to a hospital anyway, out of worry she might be exposed to COVID-19.  She’s decided for now, not to contact her doctor about getting an earlier appointment for her cancer check-in.

Through the Milwaukee-based breast cancer support group ABCD, we connected with local resident Fran McLaughlin. She continues to have infusion treatments, in which chemotherapy drugs are injected into a vein. The process takes five to seven hours per session.

"The chemotherapy — it's my friend in fighting cancer, but it also makes it so my immune system can't help me fight anything else." - Fran McLaughlin

But Fran says one thing that’s changed during the COVID-19 pandemic is she can no longer have visitors during infusion. “It was nice to have people drop by, speed up the process a little bit for you, where the time goes by faster," she says.

To pass the time, Fran now reads or does crossword puzzles. She says she fully understands that her health care provider is being more cautious.

Another change, Fran says, is she no longer comes into the clinic for weekly blood work after an infusion — for a check of blood levels and signs of anemia. "In lieu of that, what they’re doing is a nurse will call and make sure if you’re experiencing anything that needs a nurse, they will have you come in. So, it’s not that you can’t come in and be treated. But they’re trying to limit those interactions and keep their cancer clinic COVID-free," she explains.

And like Gail, the lung cancer patient, Fran ays she doesn’t want to get COVID-19. "The chemotherapy — it’s my friend in fighting cancer, but it also makes it so my immune system can’t help me fight anything else," she says.

The health care system says people with medical problems shouldn’t be shy about talking with a provider about the possible need for additional care.

Dr. Nicole Brady says she’s not worried about delayed medical procedures leading to more long-term problems for patients. She's chief medical officer for the insurance company UnitedHealthcare Group.

Brady acknowledges a patient may have concerns. "If they feel like they didn’t get a good answer from their physician’s office on why it was OK to delay it, given symptoms right now, or what the plan is, that’s definitely worth  a call back to that team and say, ‘Boy, did you guys really hear me?," she says. “It’s very important to be very honest with providers and say, 'This is what’s worrying me and this is why I’m not really comfortable delaying this. Help me understand this.'”

Many hospitals are offering telehealth sessions such as video chats with providers. But some medical experts say if the coronavirus pandemic stretches out over much of the year, the health care system will either have to figure out how to see — in person — other types of patients more often, or risk more people dying.

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.

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