Scared to death? Doctor says patients with serious diseases are dying from fear of COVID-19

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Modern medicine can do amazing things for even the most critically ill patient, but it can’t do a thing if they don’t seek treatment. More people are dying from heart and respiratory conditions which don’t usually lead to death, and avoiding medical care may be why. Dr. Joseph S. Alpert, editor-in-chief of The American Journal of Medicine, says the cause is simple — fear. His findings reveal more patients with serious illnesses are avoiding urgently needed care over concerns they’ll contract COVID-19 in hospitals.

Alpert says although he’s seeing the same mix of non-COVID inpatients entering hospitals — those with heart failure or COPD — these people are much sicker and close to death than in pre-pandemic days.

“At times, one-third of our Internal Medicine patients were receiving consultations from the Palliative Care service and were being considered for inpatient or home hospice,” Dr. Alpert writes in the peer-reviewed journal. “In the past the usual situation involved no patient, or only one individual, being considered for hospice.”

Why are hospital patients sicker during COVID-19?

“The answer was simple,” declares Alpert, from the University of Arizona School of Medicine. “Patients were avoiding the hospital as much as possible because they feared acquiring a lethal COVID infection on top of their chronic illness. For the same reason, many hospitalized patients refused post-discharge physical therapy or inpatient hospice transfer following acute care.”

Previous studies have noted that fewer patients suffering heart attacks and strokes are entering emergency rooms during the pandemic. Moreover, hospital mortality rates have been higher as well. Scientists believe this is likely the result of delaying urgent care and recommended therapies.

Dr. Alpert notes that patients often claim it’s safer to stay home than go to the hospital during COVID. Others admitted they were afraid hospital staff would be so busy treating coronavirus patients they wouldn’t have time for them.

“I repeatedly told patients that they were safer with us on both our inpatient and outpatient services than they would be shopping for groceries, where they would not know the COVID status of those standing near them,” Dr. Alpert continues in his report.

If you’re sick, get to a doctor!

The study author adds hospitals and clinics are doing everything they can to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in their facilities. Those steps include social distancing, no-visitor policies, constant cleaning, and (more recently) near-universal vaccinations for staff.

“Unfortunately, much of this information fell on deaf ears. It seems that fear had overcome rational thinking.”

Dr. Alpert believes the airline industry may have the answer when it comes to dealing with irrational fears of hospitals. The journal Editor-in-Chief explains that airlines have used special programs and promotions to help potential customers overcome their fear of flying for years. The same trick might help critically ill patients take the leap and get themselves the care they need.

“Medicine needs to use as many avenues of communication as possible to educate the public concerning safe conditions within hospitals and outpatient clinics,” Alpert concludes. “If you are sick, do not delay and do not hesitate to call 911 or get someone to bring you to the closest emergency department where you can receive potentially life-saving therapy.”