A new study is raising concerns that British Columbians with serious illnesses could be avoiding hospital treatment because they’re worried about COVID-19.
The research from two doctors based out of Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital recently published in The Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine looked at the first three months of B.C.’s COVID-19 pandemic.
They found a 15-per cent overall decline in 911 calls, and a nine-per cent drop in calls related to critical illness.
“Fifteen per cent is a huge number,” study co-author Dr. Frank Scheuermeyer, an emergency medicine doctor at St. Paul’s hospital and associate professor at UBC, told Global News.
“People didn’t stop getting sick, they just stopped calling 911. We think it was because people were scared of getting COVID or they didn’t want to burden the health care system.”
The research comes amid concern about growing pressure on the province’s hospitals — and particularly intensive care units — due to the spread of more serious variants of the virus.
ICU admissions are at a near pandemic high, while COVID-admissions have risen to levels not seen since early January.
Scheuermeyer said while those pressures are real, they don’t necessarily affect other hospital functions — non-COVID-related units remain both safe and operational, and volumes in emergency rooms are actually down by 10 to 15 per cent, he said.
And it could be leading to dangerous or even deadly health outcomes.
“What we’re seeing is people coming in with three or four months of abdominal pain, and they have a late-stage cancer,” he said.
“We’re starting to miss things like cancer, diabetes, heart problems, and these are going to have long-term implications for people’s physical health, their emotional health and their quality of life.”
At their briefings, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix have reiterated several times that British Columbians who are ill should not avoid seeking treatment due to fears of COVID-19 exposure.
But Scheuermeyer said he is concerned that message is not getting through,
“We’d like patients to go to the hospital if they’re sick,” he said.
“We’re open, we’re there, we still are there to provide care … it’s safe to go, and we don’t want to be missing too many heart attacks and cancers and new onset diabetes.”
“There’s still lots of space. The hospitals are safe. The emergency departments are safe.”