‘Fear’ stopping people from seeking urgent treatment for non-coronavirus-related illnesses, doctors say

People are 'so frightened that they’re just not ringing their GP or going to the hospital'

How to feel less anxious about coronavirus

A worrying drop in attendances in accident and emergency (A&E) wards could mean people with medical emergencies, including heart attacks, are delaying treatment out of fear of contracting coronavirus, doctors have warned.

Medical professionals are seeking to reassure people that hospitals are “well-poised” to receive and treat patients with non-coronavirus-related problems and urge them not to avoid hospitals.

Their calls come after NHS England’s monthly statistics showed a huge drop in the numbers of people going to their local emergency departments, sparking fears that people could die without care.

Speaking on BBC’s Today programme on Saturday, consultant cardiologist Dr Ramzi Khamis and Tower Hamlets Clinical Commissioning Group chair Professor Sir Sam Everington said people too frightened to go to hospital amid the coronavirus crisis is “a big problem”.

Mr Everington, who is also a GP, said: “We are worried about [people not seeking urgent treatment]. Rightly, everyone’s focused on increasing the number of intensive care beds and there’s been fantastic energy put into that by doctors, nurses, managers in the hospital – but we know that casualty attendances have gone down by half, cancer referrals have gone down by half and outpatient referrals are a 10th of what they were.”

While the fall in attendances is “not all bad”, it is concerning that people who do attend hospital to seek urgent treatment “are in a more severe situation”, he added.

According to NHS England’s data, 1.5 million people attended A&E departments in England in March this year, compared to over 2.1 million in March 2019.

Dr Khamis, who works at Hammersmith Hospital in London, said heart attack centres saw half as many patients in March as the same period last year.

“That’s quite worrying – we would like to really emphasise that we are there and we are poised to receive heart attack patients. We are so well-poised that we would like to encourage people with heart attack symptoms not to delay and to seek treatment urgently.

“A heart attack is a medical emergency and if you ignore it, there is a big risk of both death and serious problems with the heart afterwards. We’ve got this fantastic programme in the UK which has been developed over the past 40 years with the help of the British Heart Foundation in terms of supporting research and we are so good at treating heart attacks, it would be a real shame to lose that advantage,” he added.

If anyone experiences heart attack symptoms, which includes chest pain, pain travelling from chest to arms, lightheadedness, sweating and shortness of breath, they must call 999 and an ambulance crew will come, said Dr Khamis.

Many practices have also moved their operations online, enabling patients to get specialist’s opinions and check their prescriptions without having to go to their GP.

But Mr Everington said constantly hearing about coronavirus deaths is making people “so frightened that they’re just not ringing their GP or going to the hospital, and also not knowing that so much of this can be done online”.

“We’ve completely transferred to video consultations, texting, emailing patients, patients can access their notes, prescriptions that are sent by computers. There’s this fantastic new system in place, actually, to keep them safe and distance as much as possible. But a lot of this is fear and that’s the thing we’re really worried about,” he said.

Medical leaders have also warned patients not to avoid seeking medical help when they need it.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AoMRC) said in a joint statement: “During this Covid-19 pandemic it is vitally important that patients and the public recognise that they must continue to seek medical assistance if they have symptoms which cause concern, or they already are being treated for a serious health condition.

“The risk of developing other serious or life-threatening conditions remains unchanged and people must be fully confident that they can, and should, seek medical assistance if they are worried about themselves or a relative.”

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