(June 24, 2020) The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all facets of the health care system, including physicians and their patients. Some health care providers chose to close offices completely, while others rescheduled well visits to future dates. As a result, the Medical Group Management Association(MGMA) reports that practices cite a 60% decrease in patient volume since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.
Now, as physicians and other providers begin to re-welcome patients into their practice, and as patients begin to feel more comfortable returning to the doctor’s office for well visits, there is an opportunity for providers to ensure patients have received the vaccines they need. Given the current health risks associated with the coronavirus, it’s critical that patients have the best defense against vaccine-preventable diseases to maintain their overall health. Here are several considerations for providers as their patient visits begin to increase.
Identify At-Risk Populations that Can Benefit from Vaccinations
While people of all ages can be infected with COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified several populations that are at a higher risk for severe illness:
Aging patients. According to research published in Frontiers in Immunology, as patients age, their bodies’ ability to respond to immune system challenges becomes less effective. Older patients are at a higher risk of disease, including the coronavirus.
Patients with heart disease. The American Heart Association reports that because the coronavirus is a respiratory disease, it primarily affects the lungs. When the lungs aren’t working properly, it can add stress to the heart, which can be dangerous for someone with heart disease.
Patients with lung disease. COVID-19 affects the respiratory system, meaning that patients with lung disease, including asthma, COPD, lung cancer, cystic fibrosis, and pulmonary fibrosis, are more likely to experience complications if they contract the disease.
Patients with diabetes. The American Diabetes Association reports that people with diabetes are not more likely to contract coronavirus, but are more likely to experience severe symptoms and complications if they do.
These populations also have greater susceptibility to comorbidities and related complications, making vaccinations a particularly beneficial preventive health measure. Yet many adults with high-risk diseases are not up to date on the recommended immunizations. In a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), of adults 65 years and older, more than one-third did not report pneumococcal or Td vaccination, four out of five did not report Tdap vaccination, and nearly two-thirds did not report a herpes zoster vaccination. Providers planning for office re-openings should consider prioritizing patients that fall within these populations and flag for potential lapsed vaccinations or new eligibility for vaccination.
The arrival of influenza season this fall will bring additional health risks, and patients will need to protect themselves against two respiratory diseases. In an article published in Science Advances, providers and health care systems are encouraged to expand efforts to increase influenza vaccination rates, which will help to mitigate the impact of both diseases on at-risk populations.
Outline When and How Vaccines Will be Administered
The CDC recommends that, when possible, providers should deem vaccinations and well-child visits as essential activities during the pandemic to avoid outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. In areas with community transmission of COVID-19, the Immunization Action Coalition(IAC) suggests that vaccination visits should be postponed, except when an in-person visit is scheduled for another reason, or there is a compelling need for vaccination. Providers should work with patients to discuss the benefits and risks to make an appropriate decision.
Additionally, the IAC encourages providers to consider conducting an immunization assessment during telemedicine visits and scheduling the patient for a brief vaccination-only encounter at an appropriate time and location.
Communicate Expectations in Advance
Some patients may feel anxious about their first visit back to their doctor’s office. Providers can help to ease concerns by communicating with patients, ahead of time, about what they can expect, including any new policies, check-in procedures, or preventative measures. This can also be an opportunity to highlight vaccinations the patient could benefit from.
Providers may consider using an Electronic Health System or email system to help manage this communication. Encouraging patients to call with questions can also help them feel informed and prepared for their well visit.
Providers are a valuable resource to patients for medical information and have the potential to make a great impact on patient vaccination rates. By reviewing the needs of their patient populations, and educating patients about vaccines and office visits, providers can help promote vaccine uptake while enabling their patients to take an active role in preventing illnesses and maintaining their overall health.
For more information, contact our partners at Atlantic Health Partners: Cindy Berenson or Jeff Winokur, 800-741-2044, firstname.lastname@example.org.