A mom of eight boys, Kim Gudgeon was at her wits’ end when she called her family doctor in suburban Chicago to schedule a sick visit for increasingly fussy, 1-year-old Bryce.
He had been up at night and was disrupting his brothers’ e-learning during the day. “He was just miserable,” Gudgeon said. “And the older kids were like, ‘Mom, I can’t hear my teacher.’ There’s only so much room in the house when you have a crying baby.”
She hoped the doctor might just phone in a prescription since Bryce had been seen a few days earlier for a well visit. The doctor had noted redness in one ear but opted to hold off on treatment.
To Gudgeon’s surprise, that’s not what happened. Instead, when she called, her son was referred to urgent care, a practice that has become common for the Edward Medical Group, which included her family doctor and more than 100 other doctors affiliated with local urgent care and hospital facilities. Because of concerns about the transmission of the coronavirus, the group is now generally relying on virtual visits for the sick, but often refers infants and young children to urgent care to be seen in person.
“We have to take into consideration the risk of exposing chronically ill and well patients, staff and visitors in offices, waiting areas or public spaces,” said Adam Schriedel, chief medical officer and a practicing internist with the group.
Gudgeon’s experience is not unusual. As doctors and medical practices nationwide navigate a new normal with COVID-19 again surging, some are relying on urgent care sites and emergency departments to care for sick patients, even those with minor ailments.
That policy is troubling to Dr. Arthur “Tim” Garson Jr., a clinical professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Houston who studies community health and medical management issues. “It’s a practice’s responsibility to take care of patients,” Garson said. He worries about patients who can’t do video visits if they don’t have a smartphone or access to the internet or simply aren’t comfortable using that technology.
Garson supports protocols to protect staff and patients, including in some instances referrals to urgent care. In those cases, practices should be making sure their patients are referred to good providers, he said. For instance, children should be seen by urgent care facilities with pediatric specialists.
Referrals for children have become so prevalent that the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with interim guidance on how practices can safely see patients, in an effort to promote patient-centered care and to ease the strain on other medical facilities as the peak of flu season approaches. The academy recommended that pediatricians strive “to provide care for the same variety of visits that they provided prior to the public health emergency.”
The academy raises concerns about unintended consequences of referrals, such as the fragmentation of care and increased exposure to other illnesses, both caused by patients seeing multiple providers; higher out-of-pocket costs for families; and an unfair burden shifting to the urgent care system as illnesses surge.
“I think this is all being driven by fear, not really knowing how to do this safely, and not really thinking about all of the sorts of consequences that are going to come as flu and other respiratory illnesses surge this fall and winter,” said Dr. Susan Kressly, who recently retired from her practice in Warrington, Pennsylvania, and authored the AAP guidance.
Fear is not unfounded. More than 900 health care workers, 20 of them pediatricians and pediatric nurses, have died of COVID-19, according to a KHN-Guardian database of front-line health care workers lost to the coronavirus.
For the Edward Medical Group, referrals are a safe way to treat patients by using all the resources of its medical system, Schriedel said.
“We can assure patients, regardless of COVID-19, we have multiple options to provide the care and services they need,” he said.
Besides urgent care referrals and virtual visits, doctors have been given guidelines on how to safely see sick patients. That might mean requesting a negative COVID test before a doctor visit or having staff escort a sick patient from the car directly to an exam room. Also, a pilot program is underway with designated offices taking patients with a respiratory illness that could be flu or COVID-19.
It is a balancing act with some risks. In August, friends sent Kressly screenshots of parents’ online message boards from states such as Texas, Indiana and Florida that were seeing a summer spike in COVID-19 cases. Mothers felt abandoned by their pediatricians because they were being sent to urgent care and emergency departments. Kressly fears some patients will fall through the cracks if they are seen by several different providers and don’t have a continuity of care.
Also, there’s the expense. Bryce’s case is a good example. Gudgeon reluctantly took him to an urgent care facility, worried about exposure and frustrated because she felt her doctor knew Bryce best. His exam included a COVID test. “They barely looked in his ears, and we went home to wait for the results,” she said, and got no medicine to treat Bryce. The next day, she had a negative test and still a fussy, sick baby.
Urgent care facilities across the country are reporting higher numbers of patients, said Dr. Franz Ritucci, president of the American Board of Urgent Care Medicine. His clinic in Orlando, Florida, is seeing twice as many patients, both children and adults, as it did at this time last year.
“In urgent care, we’re seeing all comers, whether they are sick with COVID or not,” he said.
Meanwhile, ERs are seeing far fewer pediatric patients than usual, said Alfred Sacchetti, a spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians and the director of clinical services at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Emergency Department in Camden, New Jersey. Although adult emergency room visits have largely returned to pre-COVID levels, pediatric visits are 30% to 40% lower, he said. Sacchetti suspects several factors are at play, including fewer kids in daycare and school with less opportunity to spread illness and people avoiding emergency rooms for fear of the coronavirus.
“You see parents looking around the department and if someone clears their throat, you can look in their eyes and see the concern,” Sacchetti said. “We reassure them” that the precautions taken in hospitals will help keep them safe, he added.
Gudgeon considered taking Bryce to an emergency room, but she felt increasingly uncomfortable both with the thought of exposing him to another health care facility and the cost. In the end, she called an out-of-state doctor she had seen often years before moving to Illinois. That doctor phoned in an antibiotic prescription, and Bryce quickly improved, she said.
“I just wish he didn’t have to suffer for so long,” Gudgeon said.
Kressly hopes doctors become more creative in finding ways to provide direct care. She likes the “Swiss cheese” approach of layering several imperfect solutions to see patients and offer protection from COVID-19: screening for symptoms before the patient comes in, requiring everyone to wear masks, allowing only one caregiver to accompany a sick child and offering parking lot visits for sick kids in their cars.
Most important is good communication, Kressly said. Not only does that help the patient, it can also help protect the doctor from patients who may not want to admit they have COVID symptoms.
“We can’t create this barrier to care for uncomplicated, acute illnesses,” Kressly said. “This is not temporary. We all have to creatively figure out how to get patients and families connected to the right care at the right place at the right time.”