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Are You Procrastinating Your Doctor’s Visit? Don’t Delay Any Longer

Photo of two military women talking. Capt. Sheila A. Gaines, flight commander of the Operational Medicine Flight, 9th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron, left, performs a routine checkup with an airman at Beale Air Force Base, California, May 1, 2020. It is important to have preventive health visits in person. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Jason Cochran)

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About 41 percent of Americans say they have delayed or avoided some sort of medical care or preventive screening because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted.

That can have grave consequences – the CDC report underscored that “medical care delay or avoidance might increase morbidity and mortality risk associated with treatable and preventable health conditions.”

The study highlights the importance of preventive health care like immunizations, checkups, and screenings, which can vary depending on your age bracket.

Missing out on those can have a long-term negative impact on health and readiness, particularly for active-duty service members.

Why Is Preventive Health Care Important?

“Preventing and limiting chronic diseases is a matter of defense readiness,” said Beverly Luce, a senior nurse consultant at the Defense Health Agency’s medical affairs division.

“A service member who is physically and mentally healthy can execute at their highest level during a deployment or at their home duty station,” she added. “By maintaining their physical, dental, and mental health, service members can answer the call to defend this great nation at all times.”

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many Military Health System beneficiaries to postpone or forgo visits to their doctor. And while a diversity of MHS innovations offer alternative options to access health care remotely, telehealth has limitations and cannot treat or screen effectively for all conditions.

For example, catching up with immunizations during well-child visits in pediatric and adolescent age groups is essential for healthy development. Likewise, it’s key for pregnant women to attend regular checkups for the well-being of the mother and child.

“Telehealth visits are perfect for acute concerns,” said Navy Cmdr. Christine Davies, associate director of medical services at Naval Hospital Jacksonville, Florida.

However, she added: “Most preventive health visits cannot be completed through telehealth.”

“Virtual appointments are a great avenue for routine follow-up as well as medication refills,” said Michelle Smith, a registered nurse and health promotion coordinator at Naval Health Clinic Oak Harbor at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington.

“Family Medicine and Behavioral Health clinics found patients often preferred virtual appointments as they did not have to take additional time to travel to and from their appointment.”

Either way, regular screenings and health checkups can help providers to diagnose earlier, provide timely and effective treatment when it is most effective, and encourage positive behaviors to raise awareness and lower risk.

For younger adults who may think they don’t need screening because they are “fine”, Luce recommends not skipping out. Even if you have no health problems at all, preventive care visits are valuable.

“This is the best time to have your provider document your baseline health,” she said. “As things change, the provider and patient will know how much change has occurred and develop a care plan to prevent further impairment or harm.”

A soldier receives dental care
Army Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Mauris and hundreds of other soldiers receive dental care as part of their medical readiness screenings at the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, Virginia. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Scott)

Key Screenings

“The most important preventive screenings are the ones associated with your age group,” said Luce. 

Military medicine follows the recommendations of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which are based on age and gender: 

“For our youngest beneficiaries, well-child visits are important to assess for appropriate physical development as well as provide recommended vaccinations for their age group,” she said.

More specifically, infants should have scheduled well visits at 2, 4, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, and 24 months, Davies said. “For children, it is important to schedule an annual well visit starting at 3 years old until 18 years old.”

For women, important health screenings begin at age 21, and include screening for cervical cancer, said Smith. 

“At age 40, women should discuss breast cancer screening with their health care provider. Women with an increased risk of breast cancer may begin mammograms at age 40,” she said. “But all women should begin breast cancer screening at age 50.”

Similarly, men and women should begin colorectal cancer screening at age 50.

According to the National Institutes of Health, African Americans have a 20% higher incidence of colorectal cancer. For that reason, Smith recommends African American men and women 45 or older discuss screening options with their doctors.

Active-duty service members should complete an annual Periodic Health Assessment, Smith said.

“While it may not consist of a physical exam per se, a health assessment and review of high-risk behavior is completed and recommended for follow up with a health care provider if warranted,” Smith said.

Additionally, Davies said, it’s important for service members to complete all required health screenings to be deployable.

“Any health conditions should be identified before deployment due to the limited resources available once deployed.

In addition to cancer screenings, Luce said adults and seniors should get screened for vision and hearing disorders and heart disease. Additionally, “all ages are at risk for depression and suicide, so screening for mental health issues and talking to your provider can provide you the resources to assist with a healthier mindset.”

Total Health Connection

“Mental, physical, and dental health are all interconnected, said Luce. “A decrease [in health] or issue in one area can lead to a decrease in the other two areas.” 

Smith agrees. “As health care providers we cannot focus on a diagnosis or disease state,” she added. “We must take into account the patient as a whole, all being interconnected.”

Studies show that poor mental health can lead to chronic physical health conditions, including oral and gum disease.

The good news is, “if we care for our oral, mental, and physical well-being, we can prevent or slow down chronic conditions or diseases,” she said.

To remain proactive about their health, beneficiaries can practice several positive health behaviors to remain physically and mentally tuned up.

“These include proper nutrition, adequate physical exercise, alcohol in moderation, and quitting tobacco use,” she said. 

To support NHC Oak Harbor beneficiaries during the pandemic’s limited ability for face-to-face outreach and education, she said the Health Promotion Department transitioned to using electronic media extensively – Facebook, emails, and electronic reader boards – to provide health and wellness information.

Additionally, she said clinical staff reached out to parents of newborns and children through age 12 to remind them of the importance of well-child visits and encourage face-to-face appointments for physical exams and vaccinations, when needed. 

“The Pediatrics Clinic booked well-child exams at a different time of the day than acute/sick visits, thus providing a safe environment for healthy children,” she said.

All military treatment facilities follow strict COVID-19 pandemic protocols, so seeing your health care providers remains safe.

“We are there for you,” said Davies.

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