Don't Let Fear Of COVID-19 Stop Other Treatment, Warns Cleveland Clinic CEO

Cleveland Clinic CEO Tom Mihaljevic delivers State of the Clinic speech. [Cleveland Clinic]
Cleveland Clinic CEO Tom Mihaljevic delivering the 2019 State of the Clinic speech. [Cleveland Clinic]
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More than 100,000 people have died of COVID-19 across the United States, including, as of Monday, 2,404 Ohioans.

Cleveland Clinic President and CEO Dr. Tomislav Mihaljevic argues just as many more may die because they’re afraid of coronavirus. Many seriously ill people are putting off getting the care they need, he said, even though healthcare providers have taken steps to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Mihaljevic talked with “Morning Edition” host Amy Eddings about the importance of getting timely treatment for non-COVID related illnesses and injuries.

In an op-ed in Tuesday's New York Times, you and the CEO and president of the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Gianrico Farrugia, laid out some statistics showing a drop in diagnoses of serious illnesses. What are doctors seeing?

What we're seeing is that fewer patients are seeking timely care for potentially life-threatening conditions. We're seeing a decline in newly-diagnosed cancer patients, newly-diagnosed patients with cardiovascular and neurologic diseases. And this is not because those diseases have disappeared. It is because people are simply afraid to come to the hospitals and seek care.

At the Clinic’s hospitals, there has been a steep drop in emergency room visits. Can you tell me more?

We have seen fewer and fewer patients come to emergency rooms and this is not just an exclusive Cleveland Clinic experience. This is a national and worldwide trend in healthcare. 

Is my understanding correct, it's something like a 40 percent drop in ER visits?

That is true. We have seen at the peak of the pandemic that drop is even more pronounced, a 60 to 70 percent drop in ER visits. Although I have to say that the patients who arrive to the emergency room and seek care in that setting tend to be sicker, with the more advanced stages of the disease than what we used to see before the COVID pandemic. What that means is that people are essentially deferring care until the last possible moment.

What have you seen happen to some patients as a result of being afraid to come to the hospital?

Yes, we had a young patient who did not seek care in time and she tried to delay the visits to the doctor and the emergency room. But what happened as a consequence was that we diagnosed her with an advanced state of leukemia and that was too late for her to be cured of that otherwise potentially curable disease. She lost her life because of a deferment of care.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine prohibited nonessential medical visits and surgeries on March 17th, to set aside hospital beds for COVID-19 patients and preserve personal protective gear like gloves and masks. But those restrictions were lifted nearly six weeks ago. Do you know whether people are delaying care because they're afraid of going to the doctor or whether they think they're not allowed to?

So, patients are not coming to the hospitals because of a combination of both things that you just mentioned. First there was a ban to the nonessential procedures and the second one was the fear of coming to the hospital. It is really important to all of your listeners to know that here in our home state of Ohio, all healthcare providers are here to offer the care with no restrictions. We are in a good place when it comes to the control of the COVID pandemic and all hospital and healthcare services have been resumed in its full capacity.

People with critical health needs were always allowed to go see the doctor, but do you think the state failed to get that message across?

No, I don't think the state failed to bring the message across. I think the messaging from our state was superb. But there was this unintended impact on the psychology of patients and the fear was a logical consequence of this unprecedented healthcare challenge.

And it is not too late for people to come to their healthcare providers and seek care. And they need to be reassured that the hospital environments are safe. Out of 60,000 Cleveland Clinic caregivers in the United States, fewer than one percent of them have become infected with COVID-19. And we have no evidence that that infection occurred at the workplace. Most likely it occurred in their communities.

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