COVID-19 turned the world upside down. Almost overnight everything changed as new rules were put in place to keep the virus from spreading. As I work from home and spend the majority of my time at home, in my pyjamas, I initially believed that I wouldn’t be affected that much.
However, after a few weeks, it soon became apparent that accessing healthcare services was going to be an issue for me.
But first, a quick disclaimer from me
Healthcare systems around the world have been put under a lot of pressure with the pandemic and frontline workers who have been working tirelessly to save lives. I am extremely grateful for all that they’ve done and what they continue to do. This piece is in no way intended to criticise those services. Instead, I wanted to tell my story as a chronically ill patient trying to access routine healthcare during this particularly challenging period and share what I have learnt so that it might be useful to others who find themselves in the same position.
Accessing healthcare telephonically
There have been quite a few changes in my healthcare routine during the coronavirus outbreak. The main one has been how all my routine hospital appointments have either been postponed or changed from face-to-face appointments to telephone consultations.
Talking over the phone to some of my consultants worked perfectly well while other consultants needed to send me for tests. Had I been in hospital for the appointment as normal, I would have had the tests there and then, but because of the situation, they needed to be scheduled.
Having a consultation via phone also meant the doctor couldn’t do a physical examination on me. This is not ideal if you develop new symptoms, as something could be missed without that face-to-face experience. Which is exactly what happened to me during lockdown.
For a few weeks I struggled with my chest. I was uncertain and reluctant to get in touch with my GP surgery as I knew the demand would be high. Because I was anxious and scared, I put off calling them for about two weeks before giving in.
It turns out my caution was unnecessary.
When I phoned the surgery and automated message played that explained the situation: Even though people were asked to stay away from the practice, they were still accepting routine appointments telephonically. They also shared information on what to do and who to call if you had COVID-19 symptoms.
I realised I wouldn’t be left stranded with whatever illness I had, but a big part of me still didn’t want to add any pressure on an already pressurised healthcare system.
After a number of telephone conversations over the next few weeks, it was established that I didn’t have a chest infection as first thought. Instead my GP believed I urgently needed to be seen by a gastroenterologist.
I received a triage telephone consultation from a nurse working with the gastro team who explained that no gastroscopies were currently being performed because of COVID-19. Instead, I would be sent to my local hospital for a barium swallow X-ray the next week.
Changes in the hospital due to COVID-19
I had been shielding for three months before going to this appointment, so I was very reluctant and scared.
My partner usually attends all my appointments with me as I get very anxious and don’t always remember all the information I’m told. However, the restrictions meant I had to go into hospital alone. I also had to wear a mask and follow the two metre social-distancing rules.
Upon arriving at the correct department, my temperature was taken, and I was guided to a waiting room where only a handful of other people sat waiting.
After having my X-ray, I was told there was a blockage in my oesophagus and the results would be sent on to my consultant who I should hear from soon.
Would this have been found sooner if I’d I been able to see my GP and have an examination, instead of talking over the phone? Who knows. I have a very complicated medical history and I contract chest infections all the time. Besides, all my other symptoms met the criteria so the initial diagnosis made sense.
Another problem I had was that my monthly prescription delivery was cancelled. I usually order prescriptions online and within a few days they are dropped off at my house. Due to lockdown protocol my local chemist was only delivering to people over 70. Because I was shielding, my partner had to go to collect my medication. This involves wearing a mask and queuing outside, as they only allow one person in at a time. I am not sure what others in my position, but without partners, do.
I think it’s really important to contact your healthcare providers if you’re poorly, even during this uncertain period. They are still available to help with your concerns. If you need to speak to your GP or consultant, do so. They have not changed the rules on what conditions or illnesses you can book appointments for – only the mechanism of how they interact with you has changed.
I understand it’s a really scary time, but take precautions to look after your health and access the services if you need help. I’m glad I did.
NPS-TPE-NP-00015 July 2020