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'There's going to be a real blip:' Medical professionals are concerned about delayed routine screenings and their long-term effects

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OU Health
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Throughout the coronavirus pandemic and its surges, Oklahomans have struggled to find open hospital beds, to schedule urgent care appointments and have seen their surgeries moved back. Those access issues trickle down to even the most routine appointments.

Anna Langthorn says she’s lucky. Her baby was born between COVID surges. Back in November, delta had waned. Omicron was on the horizon, but not here yet. But any new parent can tell you: the medical appointments don’t stop after birth. There are a slew of them afterward — a few days out, a few weeks out, then a few months out.

“So we had this telehealth visit where, basically, they went through screener questions — you know, to ask about developmental milestones and anything that would be a red flag,” she said. “But we didn’t get any of like the hands on care, like weighing or measuring or her vaccines.”

By the time those later appointments hit for Langthorn and her daughter, omicron had taken hold and filled the state’s ERs, ICUs and hospitals. OU Health shifted to virtual appointments.

“We still don’t really know how much she weighs,” she said. “She could not be growing quickly enough. I don’t think that’s the case. She’s growing out of her clothes pretty quickly, so I’m not worried about it. But a different family, different circumstances, there could be a baby who is at risk of something and parents wouldn’t necessarily know because they haven’t had access to what’s supposed to be standard care.”

Oklahoma medical professionals are raising concerns that simple appointments like this are going unscheduled. OU Health’s Dr. Dale Bratzler says those delays make sense, but they’re a threat to patient health.

Some of the problem is that the system itself has been over-extended.

“Some of those services got shut down or were not being done as often,” Bratzler said.

And, like in Langthorn’s case, systems have relied on telehealth — a good, but not perfect, substitute.

Some of it has also been reasonably self-imposed.

“You know, I think they heeded the warnings to kind of, ‘Stay home, ‘Don’t go out,’ ‘Don’t put yourself in harm’s way and go into a healthcare facility,’” he said. “It seems like a great way to put yourself in harm’s way. So I think there were a lot of people that just deferred scheduling or following up around preventive services.”

Again, these delays can cause severe issues down the road.

“Everything we’ve talked about lately has been COVID related,” Bratzler said. “But whether we like it or not, cardiovascular disease and cancer are still the leading causes of death in this country — even more than COVID was. And indeed, I think a lot of us are concerned that people have put off routine preventive services, cancer screenings, other things that will be important to both prevention of disease but also early detection of disease.”

Doctors like Bratzler are concerned about the effect this could have on individuals. Public health officials, such as Interim Commissioner of Health Keith Reed, are concerned about the effect this could have on communities.

“I would venture to guess if we look forward, you know, five, 10 years down the road, and we look back at our health status for this period of time and maybe the next year or so, that there’s going to be a real blip on the screen that you’re going to be able to point to and say, ‘OK, that was an impact of COVID on a population, and it was manifest in multiple ways,’” he said.

He says that in better times – you know, when we’re not in the worst public health crisis in a century — community health initiatives like routine screenings are the kinds of things agencies like his focus on full time.

“That’s one reason we’re launching some mobile units to try to really reinvigorate the health screening and the health access in the communities working with our partners in the health care system across the state,” he said.

In the meantime, he and other medical professionals are urging Oklahomans to go ahead and get those routine checkups when they’re available.

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Catherine Sweeney reports for StateImpact Oklahoma, focusing on health.