Industry Voices—When it comes to chronic disease, we can’t let fear become fatal

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It’s critical to remember that physical distancing doesn’t mean people should be avoiding their doctor for necessary care. (Pixabay)

Over the last four months, reports of heart attack and stroke are down by 38% and 30%, respectively. Cancer diagnoses are also down by 45% (Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic).

This is not due to promising new treatments or major advancements in medical care, nor is it a cause for celebration. These statistics indicate the dangerous wave of chronic illnesses being left untreated and deaths that will be caused, in large part, by COVID-19. 

As cases of COVID-19 rise above 4.5 million in the United States alone, Americans continue to take pre-cautions to protect themselves and their families. Frequent hand-washing, wearing masks, avoiding crowded places and physical distancing must continue if we are to defeat the pandemic.

However, if we want to protect the health of our country as a whole, it’s critical to remember that physical distancing doesn’t mean people should be avoiding their doctor for necessary care.

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According to a recent editorial in the Journal of American Surgery, surgeons have witnessed a dramatic change in their practices, with sharp decreases in elective surgeries and emergency room volumes down by 50%. A recent survey conducted by CVS Health and Morning Consult showed that nearly 60% of Americans say they’ve delayed, canceled or missed a healthcare appointment due to concerns about exposure to COVID-19.

This fear could have severe, if not fatal, impacts on the lives of millions of Americans and will present major setbacks to our health care system if it is not addressed.

As a cardiologist, I constantly remind my patients to "know their numbers" — blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar are all key indicators of a person’s health, particularly when it comes to heart disease, which is still the number one killer of Americans. This is even more important for Black and Hispanic communities, which are disproportionately impacted by these chronic health conditions.

While we’ve made progress in some areas through emphasizing the importance of preventive health screenings and testing, that momentum will be lost if we cannot ensure Americans feel safe accessing our health care system.

At CVS Health and Aetna, we are fortunate in our ability to see health care delivery from the hyperlocal level to a national scale. We know people are eager to protect their health and that of their families. While much remains unknown about COVID-19, we do know that chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes have not gone into isolation. In fact, one in two Americans has a chronic disease, according to the CDC.

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That’s why we launched Time for Care — a new call to action encouraging individuals to prioritize all of their health care needs and educate people on the importance of seeking preventive care and ongoing treatment for chronic diseases.

As cases of COVID-19 spike in communities across the country, we know it will continue to impact our lives. We also know we have the power to reduce the lives it could claim due to fear of treatment. We must encourage people to stay in contact with their doctor’s office and provide resources that can be used to find clear, evidence-based information about chronic diseases.

We have come too far in our work to prevent and treat the chronic diseases that can claim far too many lives. We must work together to ensure fear does not become fatal.

Garth Graham, M.D., is the vice president of Community Health and Chief Community Health Officer at CVS Health.