‘It Just Seems Like My Patients Are Sicker’
For much of the pandemic, Americans put off nonemergency health care. That could haunt us for years to come.
The most haunting memory of the pandemic for Laura, a doctor who practices internal medicine in New York, is a patient who never got COVID at all. A middle-aged man diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in 2019, he underwent surgery and a round of successful chemotherapy and was due for regular checkups to make sure the tumor wasn’t growing. Then the pandemic hit, and he decided that going to the hospital wasn’t worth the risk of getting COVID. So he put it off … and put it off. “The next time I saw him, in early 2022, he required hospice care,” Laura told me. He died shortly after. With proper care, Laura said, “he could have stayed alive indefinitely.” (The Atlantic agreed to withhold Laura’s last name, because she isn’t authorized to speak publicly about her patients.)
Early in the pandemic, when much of the country was in lockdown, forgoing nonemergency health care as Laura’s patient did seemed like the right thing to do. But the health-care delays didn’t just end when America began to reopen in the summer of 2020. Patients were putting off health care through the end of the first pandemic year, when vaccines weren’t yet widely available. And they were still doing so well into 2021, at which point much of the country seemed to be moving on from COVID.
By this point, the coronavirus has killed more than 1 million Americans and debilitated many more. One estimate shows that life expectancy in the U.S. fell 2.41 years from 2019 to 2021. But the delays in health care over the past two and a half years have allowed ailments to unduly worsen, wearing down people with non-COVID medical problems too. “It just seems like my patients are sicker,” Laura said. Compared with before the pandemic, she is seeing more people further along with AIDS, more people with irreversible heart failure, and more people with end-stage kidney failure. Mental-health issues are more severe, and her patients struggling with addiction have been more likely to relapse.
Even as Americans are treating the pandemic like an afterthought, a disturbing possibility remains: COVID aside, is the country simply going to be in worse health than before the pandemic? According to health-care workers, administrations, and researchers I talked with from across the country, patients are still dealing with a suite of problems from delaying care during the pandemic, problems that in some cases they will be facing for the rest of their lives. The scope of this damage isn’t yet clear—and likely won’t come into focus for several years—but there are troubling signs of a looming chronic health crisis the country has yet to reckon with. At some point, the emergency phase of COVID will end, but the physical toll of the pandemic may linger in the bodies of Americans for decades to come.
During those bleak pre-vaccine dark ages, going to the doctor could feel like a disaster in waiting. Many of the country’s hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID patients, and outpatient clinics had closed. As a result, in every week through July 2020, roughly 45 percent of American adults said that over the preceding month, they either put off medical care or didn’t get it at all because of the pandemic. Once they did come in, they were sicker—a trend observed for all sorts of ailments, including childhood diabetes, appendicitis, and cancer. A recent study analyzed the 8.4 million non-COVID Medicare hospitalizations from April 2020 to September 2021 and found not only that hospital admissions plummeted, but also that those admitted to hospitals were up to 20 percent more likely to die—an astonishing effect that lasted through the length of the study.
Partly, that result came about because only those who were sicker made it to the hospital, James Goodwin, one of the study’s authors and a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch, in Galveston, told me. It was also partly because overwhelmed hospitals were giving worse care. But Goodwin estimates that “more than half the cause was people delaying medical care early in their illness and therefore being more likely to die. Instead of coming in with a urinary tract infection, they’re already getting septic. I mean, people were having heart attacks and not showing up at the hospital.”
For some conditions, skipping a checkup or two may not matter all that much in the long run. But for other conditions, every doctor’s visit can count. Take the tens of millions of Americans with vascular issues in their feet and legs due to diabetes or peripheral artery disease. Their problems might lead to, say, ulcers on the foot that can be treated with regular medical care, but delays of even a few months can increase the risk of amputation. When patients came in later in 2020, it was sometimes too late to save the limb. An Ohio trauma center found that the odds of undergoing a diabetes-related amputation in 2020 were almost 11 times higher once the pandemic hit versus earlier in the year.
Although only a small percentage of Americans lost a limb, the lack of care early in the pandemic helped fuel a dangerous spike in substance-abuse disorders. In a matter of weeks or months, people’s support systems collapsed, and for some, years of work overcoming an addiction unraveled. “My patients took a huge step back, probably more than many of us realize,” Aarti Patel, a physician assistant at a Lower Manhattan community hospital, told me. One of her patients, a man in his late 50s who was five years sober, started drinking again during the pandemic and eventually landed in the hospital for withdrawal. Patients like this man, she said, “would have really difficult, long hospital stays, because they were at really high risk of DTs, alcohol seizures. Some of them even had to go to the ICU because [the withdrawal] was so severe.”
Later in the year, when doctors’ offices were up and running, “a lot of patients expressed that they didn’t want to go back for care right away,” says Kim Muellers, a graduate student at Pace University who is studying the effects of COVID on medical care in New York City, North Carolina, and Florida. Indeed, through the spring of 2021, the top reason Medicare recipients failed to seek care was they didn’t want to be at a medical facility. Other people were avoiding the doctor because they’d lost their job and health insurance and couldn’t afford the bills.
The problem, doctors told me, is that all of those missed appointments start to add up. Patients with high blood pressure or blood sugar, for example, may now be less likely to have their conditions under control—which after enough time can lead to all sorts of other ailments. Losing a limb can pose challenges for patients that will last for the rest of their lives. Relapses can put people at a higher risk for lifelong medical complications. Cancer screenings plummeted, and even a few weeks without treatment can increase the chance of dying from the disease. In other words, even short-term delays can cause long-term havoc.
To make matters worse, the health-care delays fueling a sicker America may not be totally over yet, either. After so many backups, some health-care systems, hobbled by workforce shortages, are scrambling to address the pent-up demand for care that patients can simply no longer put off, according to administrators and doctors from several major health systems, including Cleveland Clinic, the Veterans Health Administration, and Mayo Clinic. Disruptions in the global supply chain are forcing doctors to ration basic supplies, adding to backlogs. Amy Oxentenko, a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic in Arizona who helps oversee clinical practice across the entire Mayo system, says that “all of these things are just adding up to a continued delay, and I think we’ll see impacts for years to come.”
It’s still early, and not everything that providers told me is necessarily showing up in the data. Oddly enough, the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey found that most Americans were able to see a doctor at least once during the first year of the pandemic. And the same survey has not revealed any uptick in most health conditions, including asthma episodes, high blood pressure, and chronic pain—which might be expected if America were getting sicker.
It’s even conceivable that the disturbing observations of clinicians are a statistical illusion. If for whatever reason only sicker people are now being seen by—or able to access—a doctor, then it can be true both that providers are seeing more seriously ill patients in medical facilities and that the total number of seriously ill people in the community is staying the same. The scope of the damage just isn’t yet clear: Maybe a smaller number of people will be worse off because of delayed cancer care or substance-abuse relapses, or maybe far more people—more than tens of million of Americans—will be dealing with exacerbated issues for the rest of their lives.
None of this accounts for what COVID itself is doing to Americans, of course. The health-care system is only beginning to grapple with the ways in which a past bout with COVID is a long-term risk for overall health, or the extent to which long COVID can complicate other conditions. The pandemic may feel “over” for lots of Americans, but many who made it through the gantlet of the past two-plus years may end up living sicker, and dying sooner.
This disturbing prospect is not only poised to further devastate communities; it’s also bad news for health-care workers already exhausted by COVID. Laura, the Manhattan internist who treated the colon-cancer patient, told me it’s disheartening to see so many people showing up at irreversible points in their disease. “As doctors,” she said, “our overall batting average is going down.” Aarti Patel, the physician assistant, put it in blunter terms: “Burnout is probably too simple a term. We’re in severe moral distress.”
Nothing about this grim fate was inevitable. Laura told me that “going to the doctor mid-pandemic may have posed a small risk in terms of COVID, but not going was risky in terms of letting disease go unchecked. And in retrospect it seems that many people didn’t quite get that.” But there didn’t have to be such a stark trade-off between fighting a pandemic and maintaining health care for other medical conditions.
Some hospitals—at least the better-resourced ones—figured out how to avoid the worst kind of delays. Mayo Clinic, for example, is one of a number of systems with a sophisticated triage algorithm that prioritizes patients needing acute care. In the spring of 2021, Cleveland Clinic launched a massive outreach blitz to schedule some 86,000 appointments, according to Lisa Yerian, the chief improvement officer. And the Veterans Health Administration provided iPads to thousands of veterans who lacked other means of accessing the internet in the spring of 2020, ensuring a more seamless transition to virtual care, Joe Francis, who directs health-care analytics, told me. Thanks in part to these efforts, Francis said, high-risk patients at the VHA were being seen at pre-pandemic levels a mere six months into the pandemic.
These health-care systems also suggest a path forward. America may still be able to stave off the worst of the collateral damage by reaching the patients who have fallen through the cracks—and already the data suggest that these patients tend to be disproportionately Black, Hispanic, and low-income. Tragically, it’s too late for some Americans: People who died of cancer can’t come back to life; amputated limbs can’t regrow. Others still have plenty of time. Hypertension that’s currently uncontrolled can be tamped down before causing an early heart attack; drinking that’s gotten out of hand can be corralled before it leads to liver failure in a decade; undetected tumors can be spotted in time for treatment. An uptick in premature death and disability, summed over millions of Americans, could strain the health-care system for years. But it’s still possible to prevent an acute public-health crisis from seeding an even bigger chronic one.