COVID-19 has changed the way we do everything -- especially when it comes to doctor visits. Older adults have a higher risk of complications from the coronavirus, so it’s best to avoid germs. But sometimes you need to see the doctor in person. And what if you have to go to the emergency room? We asked experts how to get proper care you need with the lowest risk.

At Your Doctor’s Office

“The world has changed for doctors and patients,” says Marc Rabinowitz, MD, a doctor in Bucks County, PA. “In my practice, I allow one patient in the office at a time. If a patient doesn’t have a mask, one is provided for them. All of our staff wear personal protective equipment, and we keep physical patient contact to an absolute minimum. Only our staff touches doorknobs and shows the patient into the exam room.”

Your doctor’s office visit will be different than before the coronavirus outbreak. Here’s what to expect:

  • Doctors and staff will wear personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.
  • Offices are disinfected and sanitized regularly.
  • Offices are set up for social distancing.
  • Visitors are limited.
  • You may check in by phone, wait in your car instead of a waiting room, and be the only patient in the office.

To limit your risk of getting sick:

  • Wear a mask.
  • Keep your hands away from your face.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Use hand sanitizer.

At the Emergency Room

Things have changed at emergency rooms, too. Hospitals have extra safety measures to protect you from getting sick.

“First and most importantly, please come to the emergency department if you’re experiencing true emergent symptoms,” says Alexis Halpern, MD, a geriatric emergency medicine doctor at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Get help right away if you have severe chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness on one side, or can’t speak clearly. They’re signs of heart attack or stroke, which need immediate attention.

“Please do not stay home because you’re afraid you’ll be exposed or catch coronavirus while you’re at the hospital,” Halpern says. Hospitals have protocols in place to protect you from getting sick.

Here’s what to expect:

  • Doctors and staff will wear personal protective equipment like masks, goggles, face shields, hair coverings, gloves, and gowns.
  • You’ll put on a mask when you walk in.
  • You may go straight to the emergency department instead of a waiting room.
  • Visitors are limited.

How to Advocate for Yourself

Many hospitals and doctors’ offices now limit visitors. Your family or caregivers may have to wait outside.

They can still be involved, Halpern says. The doctor can call or video chat with your family so they’re updated and included in decision making.

To advocate for yourself if you’re alone, Halpern says, you can:

  • Keep a list of medications, chronic health problems, doctors’ names, and phone numbers with you.
  • Write everything down.
  • Ask your doctor if your caregiver or primary doctor can call in while you’re interviewed or getting results.
  • Ask to call a family member before you decide on any recommendations.

Using Telemedicine

Many doctors now use telemedicine. That means instead of going to your doctor’s office, you talk at a distance, on your phone, iPad, or computer, on video platforms like Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and WhatsApp.

“Most patients enjoy using telemedicine, and it’s safer than leaving your home in these pandemic times,” says Joel I. Silverman, DO, a doctor with MDVIP in Boca Raton, FL. “It’s as easy as clicking on a message or an email.”

Telemedicine is safe and easy. You can check in with your doctor or get answers to questions without leaving home. Your family can also get involved, even if they’re far away. It’s covered by Medicare and commercial insurance.

If you’re nervous about trying telemedicine, ask a family member or friend to set it up for you. “Seeing is believing,” Silverman says. “Once patients connect for the first time, they recognize how easy and valuable it is.”

In-office Visit or Telemedicine?

Telemedicine is good for routine visits, checkups, and consultations. You can tell your doctor how you feel or show symptoms like a rash or swelling by holding it up to the camera.

For some things, in-office visits are best. The doctor may need to check your blood pressure, listen to your lungs, take blood samples, or do a physical exam. If you have shortness of breath, a cough that doesn’t go away, or belly pain, the doctor will want to see you in person.

Call the doctor’s office first. They can help you decide between an office visit and telemedicine.

Extra Ways to Lower Your Risk

Take these steps to stay healthy:

  • Get a flu shot and a pneumonia shot. They help you avoid illness and lower the odds you’ll have to go to the hospital if you do get sick.
  • Get a mask (medical, homemade, or ordered online) and keep it with you wherever you go.
  • Stock up on medicine. Limit trips to the pharmacy by getting them at the same time. Ask about delivery or mail-order prescriptions.

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