Some doctors go online to serve fearful patients
Medical personnel are becoming increasingly concerned about their patients who appear to be staying away from hospitals and clinics as Jamaicans remain indoors to avoid becoming infected with the spreading coronavirus (COVID-19).
Loop News interviewed clinicians in Kingston, Portmore and Montego Bay and they largely told the same story, that of seeing less of the regular patient traffic as concerns about COVID-19 increase.
COVID-19 is a highly infectious, upper respiratory tract infection, which has been spreading globally, with over one million people infected and nearly 200,000 dead.
In Jamaica, the latest numbers are 473 infected and nine people dead.
Many Jamaicans appear to believe that one is highly likely to encounter the disease in a medical setting, where the sick would go to get help.
The response of some medical centres to the fall-off in inpatient load because of fear, is to introduce telemedicine platforms, which allow patients to consult with doctors on the telephone.
Denise Nembhard, Manager at Health Plus Associates told Loop News: “There is definitely a decline. We have introduced a telemedicine service. Consultation is provided at the centre by three specialists and an internist. But, revenue is still down.”
An oncologist based at the Kingston Public Hospital, who also runs a private practice said 50 per cent of her private clients have stopped visiting the office, but 80 per cent of chemotherapy clients are still coming.
While fear might be a factor, she outlined, KPH and her office were also practising social distancing, getting patients out of the unit as soon as possible and using appointments to schedule visits.
For patients whose lab results were normal, the doctor utilises WhatsApp video calls or FaceTime, instead of asking them to come in.
She noted that only 20 per cent of older chemotherapy patients have opted to stay away. But new cancer patients are making regular visits.
A clinician working from the Cornwall Regional Hospital in Montego Bay told Loop News: “Regular patients are still coming, but not as much as before.”
She also identified increasing unemployment rate as a related issue.
“Most of my patients say they are feeling stressed because of job losses. I think many people will need psychological help because some are feeling overwhelmed.”
“As you have already heard, some are contemplating suicide. [Here] the amount of patients coming in is much less. Some say they are afraid to come in, even if they have an appointment and even though they can wear a mask.”
In Portmore, St Catherine, a doctor who operates from a once-highly trafficked medical centre is now in quarantine after encountering an infected patient.
She also noted the fall-off in numbers and is concerned about people with chronic conditions who are choosing not to come in.
She told Loop News: “Most significant is the drop off in numbers because people are afraid to leave home. I am worried that people with chronic disease will become uncontrolled and start getting sick.”
Explaining her current situation, she said: “Yesterday I had to be tested since a patient I saw [and was] suspected [to have] COVID-19 last week turned out positive. I am now on home quarantine and cannot go to work.”
Another clinician who shares her time between private practice and work at a hospital in Kingston told Loop News that, though fewer people were coming to see the doctor, medical centres were enforcing social distancing.
She explained: “There are generally less persons coming to office and staff and patients are expected to be in masks. “Less persons are accommodated in the waiting room as we practice social distancing and thus reduce the numbers of persons waiting at any one time.”
“We have also introduced a telemedicine platform to facilitate ongoing patient care particularly for those persons who are unable to come to the office or prefer not to come.”
An administrator for the Apex Medical centres located on Molynes Road in Kingston and also in Portmore Pines, St Catherine told Loop News: “The number of patients coming in has declined by half.”
She attributed the change to possible job losses as well as the fear of COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everyone is choosing to stay home. We have been taking calls from patients asking for prescription refills. They don’t want to come in if not necessary.”
Staff at one laboratory in Portmore Pines said also that patient load has decreased, although declining to state the exact level of decline. “Less patients are coming in,” she said.
Dr Orville Nembhard, director at Health Plus Associates.
Dr Orville Nembhard, director at Health Plus Associates medical centre in Kingston said medical practitioners have put in place new conditions to ease patient fear.
“There is a requirement to wear masks and to sanitise hands. Patients can also call in advance to avoid crowding.”
Meanwhile, the centre is also offering its telemedicine portal at healthplus.com.jm.
On the home page, patients will be invited to enter the waiting room. When they click on that link, the centre has a suite of practitioners who will respond.
“Someone will respond and arrange contact from the doctor,” Dr Nembhard explained.
In general, it is also likely that claims for health insurance are down because of reduced visits, but Loop News was unable to secure data from local insurance companies when they were asked.