(File photo by Advocate staff)

(File photo by Advocate staff)

Emergency department visits plummeted during pandemic: health researchers

Red Deer doctor urges people not to fear going to emergency department because of pandemic

Emergency department visits dropped dramatically, and fewer people got life-saving surgery in the early days of the pandemic, say health researchers.

In mid-April, emergency room visits across Canada dropped by half — to 25,000 a day.

By the end of June, the numbers had risen, but were still only at 85 per cent of the levels of June 2019, says the Canadian Institute for Health Information in a report published Thursday.

“Overall, fewer people sought care for common concerns like abdominal pain or colds and flu, as well as for more significant concerns like cardiac events and trauma.”

Red Deer’s Dr. Peter Bouch was not surprised by the institute’s findings.

Many people were leery of going to hospital, especially in the early weeks of the pandemic, when much was unknown about the path the virus was to take.

Bouch warns though that those suffering from unusual or significant pain should not let fear of COVID-19 stop them from seeking emergency help.

One patient of his delayed seeking treatment for chest pain for two weeks in the early months of the pandemic, because he feared getting infected in the hospital. When he finally got checked out, it was determined he had suffered a heart attack.

Fortunately, in his case, it was a minor heart attack and he has recovered.

“That’s just one case of a guy being quite lucky,” said Bouch, who is with the Red Deer Primary Care Network.

“But who knows how many patients didn’t go and decided to wait it out, and ‘boom,’ they don’t have a small (heart attack), they have a bigger one and then they die.

“The public needs to be educated, and I try to encourage my patients, that if you have valid reasons for going (to the emergency department) that’s the place you need to go.

“The chance of getting COVID in the hospital is probably way less than anywhere else.”

Hospitals are disinfected and patients and health providers are screened for COVID. Bouch said he is screened every time he visits one of the hospital wards on his rounds.

Patients and health-care workers wear masks and wash their hands regularly, among other steps to prevent the virus from spreading.

People with COVID symptoms are isolated until their test results come back.

“Emergency is not a dangerous place to go,” he said.

Not going to the ER could make someone’s medical problem much worse. Bouch offers the example of deep vein thrombosis, which involves blood clots, usually in the legs.

Left untreated, blood clots can hit the lungs, and in severe cases, cause life-threatening blockages.

That fewer people felt comfortable visiting a hospital emergency department during a pandemic is not surprising.

However, researchers were taken aback by a decline in the rate of life-saving surgeries, such as pacemaker insertions, bypass surgeries and cancer surgeries.

“What we didn’t expect to see during Wave 1 was a 17 to 21 per cent decline in life-saving and urgent surgeries,” the report says.

“We don’t know exactly what led to this decline or its impact on the patients who didn’t receive those procedures.”

Bouch wonders the same thing. There are likely people whose mammograms or colonoscopies were delayed, who will later find out they have cancer.

The potential health impacts of not catching diseases sooner will need to be studied and the lessons learned used for how future pandemics are handled, says the report.

The institute says the data proves that public health messaging and the intentional slowdown of surgeries in the spring had a “significant impact” on both Canadians’ comfort with seeking care and care providers’ comfort in providing it.

“These actions ensured that resources were available for a potential surge of COVID-19 patients, but may also have created unintended consequences.

“Given these potentially unintended consequences, did pandemic preparations go too far,” researchers ask, adding they do not have the answer.