RI emergency room visits down by half during COVID pandemic

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A local man had chest pains for nine days before visiting a Rhode Island emergency room. When doctors finally saw him, he was having a serious heart attack and required emergency surgery.

Another person suffered through severe abdominal pain for a week before they went to the hospital, at which point their appendix had ruptured.

Both of them survived. Neither are unique.

Rhode Island emergency room doctors that spoke with WPRI 12 say they cared for roughly half of the patients they’d normally see in late March and the month of April. So far in May, that number has ticked back up to about three-quarters of the typical patient census.

While the doctors believe some of the decline can be attributed to fewer people being hurt in accidents because of the weeks-long stay-at-home order, they suspect that other illnesses are still happening with the same frequency, and many patients are delaying care over fears of catching the novel coronavirus at the hospital.

“Sometimes they’ll tell us, ‘I was afraid to come to the emergency department, that’s why I’ve waited for so long,'” said Dr. Luke Messac, an emergency room resident at Brown University who works at various hospitals throughout this state.

He wrote a piece called “Delayed care-seeking for non-COVID illnesses in Rhode Island” for this month’s edition of the Rhode Island Medical Journal. Rhode Island isn’t the only place that’s seen this trend; it’s happened elsewhere in the U.S. and internationally, said Massec. And it can be deadly.

“I’ve personally seen several patients who’ve suffered consequences of waiting, and in our departments I’ve heard stories from physicians that have been tragic,” said Dr. Jeremiah Schuur, chief of emergency medicine for Lifespan.

He said some people will suffer lasting effects by waiting to seek medical treatment. Modern medicine has ways to prevent lasting effects of stroke or heart attack if acted upon quickly, but a delay might mean a patient never fully recovers, Schuur said.

“I’ve also seen people who’ve had heart attacks and come in after the time when we could give them treatment, and so we were really just treating the after effects of a heart attack much like we would have done 40 or 50 years ago,” Schuur said.

Dr. Laura Forman, chief physician of the emergency department at Kent Hospital, part of Care New England, said she’s encountered similar situations.

Both Forman and Schuur said they had prepared for an influx of patients when it became clear that that coronavirus had arrived in Rhode Island — but that didn’t happen.

“We were surprised,” Schuur said. “But when we saw patients not coming in we understood it.”

While the doctors understand people’s concerns, they’re urging Rhode Islanders to seek the urgent care they need whenever they feel ill, driving home the message that hospitals across the country are taking all the necessary precautions to keep patients safe.

“Even during a pandemic the hospital is the safest place to be if you have a medical need,” Forman said.

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