Don’t delay your annual physical, important screenings or care for chronic conditions.
This year has been full of surprises, don’t let an avoidable health complication be one of them.
Doctors say now is the time to take action when it comes to your health, particularly while the rate of COVID-19 is low in New Jersey. This means scheduling your annual physical, flu shot or other vaccination, and making preventive screenings and care for chronic conditions a priority.
Scott Lauter, MD, MBA, FACP, FHM, chief medical officer of Atlantic Medical Group, and Faith Goldman, MD, of Atlantic Breast Associates in Branchburg, joined a Community Conversation on September 16, 2020 to discuss taking charge of your health.
At the beginning of the pandemic, certain visits, screenings and scheduled procedures were delayed statewide to preserve capacity at hospitals and minimize risk. Over the short term, this probably wouldn't have a large impact on our cancer outcomes, Dr. Goldman said. However, months later some patients are still delaying or avoiding medical care.
Both doctors expressed concern that a potential COVID-19 surge in the future could delay preventive screening and elective measures again. If people delay care, “we've lost this window of opportunity,” Dr. Lauter said.
“If we delay it now, and then we need to delay it again, that's going to significantly impact the number of patients who have a delay in diagnosis,” Dr. Goldman added.
Later Cancer Diagnosis, Less Curable
For most cancers, Dr. Goldman said delays in diagnosis translate into patients eventually presenting with disease at a later stage. This might mean more radical treatments, larger surgeries, and ultimately a less curable disease.
“We also see that there is a decline in the numbers of newly diagnosed cancers, pretty much across the board, and especially for breast and colorectal cancers,” she said. In those two cancers, screenings are essential for detecting the disease at an early stage and improving long-term outcomes.
“As we can see from these national polls, as well as our community polls, we have a lot of work to do in educating the public that it is safe,” Dr. Goldman advised.
Dr. Lauter outlined some of the precautions Atlantic Health System has in place to deliver care safely to everyone who needs it. Team members, medical professionals and patients are screened for symptoms and fever daily. Social distancing measures include online check-in and minimized physical contact for anyone going to and from an appointment.
“Everybody's wearing a mask,” he said of all team members, physicians, patients and companions. And, there’s a constant focus on cleaning – whether it’s hands and equipment or surfaces and exam rooms. Learn more about how we provide care safely >
Your Annual Physical
It all starts in the primary care physician's office. The actual physical is just a small part of your annual wellness visit. Having an honest conversation with your caregiver is just as important – talking about personal history, family medical history, reviewing medications and talking about healthy habits like diet and exercise. Find a primary care doctor >
Screenings, including blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer and diabetes, are also key. For example, everyone over age 18 should be screened once for hepatitis C and women should be screened for osteoporosis at age 65, or younger if they have risk factors. Learn more about recommended screenings >
Chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, and chronic lung disease, also need to be assessed and treated, evaluated, and optimized to maintain the highest level of health possible.
All women have risks for breast cancer, even those without family history or genetic mutations, according to Dr. Goldman.
In fact, one in eight women will develop breast cancer over her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.
When it comes to breast cancer, mammography, without question, is the most effective single tool we have,” Dr. Goldman said. Screening mammograms have been shown to detect malignancy at a smaller size and have been associated with improved survival for breast cancer.
She recommends having a frank discussion about what your risk factors may be with your primary care physician, your OB/GYN, or maybe even a breast specialist. In addition to family history and genetic mutations, factors like breast density, alcohol consumption, smoking, obesity or a sedentary lifestyle are considered when doctors counsel patients on the frequency and type of screenings needed.
It's a good time to do it now, Dr. Goldman recommended, citing the unknowns ahead with COVID-19.
Time to Ask Her
Have you scheduled your mammogram? That’s the message behind Atlantic Health System’s #AskHer campaign; spreading breast cancer awareness to individual patients and the community by asking the women in your life to make their health a priority and schedule their mammogram, Dr. Goldman explained. Many women like to hear about the importance of annual screening mammograms from the people they care about, in addition to national and physician guidance.
The idea is that hearing it from multiple sources is going to really drive the message home, she said. Enhanced precautionary measures are in place to make it safe for patients to have mammograms right now. Learn more about safety in our breast centers >
Keep Your Immune System Strong
Asked about vitamin supplements, Dr. Lauter said they generally don't harm people, so people may take them if they wish. However, people should conscious of the quantities. Anything taken in excess has a potential to be harmful, he said.
It really boils down to simple habits that help maintain your health and, by extension, help your immune system be as good as it can be, according to Dr. Lauter.
- Get the right amount of sleep every night
- Eat healthy
- Exercise regularly
Fight the Flu
“We absolutely want everybody to get their flu shot this year,” Dr. Lauter said. Though you can still catch the flu, the vaccine reduces the severity and duration of the illness. It makes it less likely that you'll have a complication or need to visit the emergency department, he said.
Dr. Lauter advises that patients get flu shots as soon as possible this year to make sure that people get this important vaccination done. It takes about two weeks for the protection to be effective.
It is recommended for anyone over the age of six months and is particularly important for high-risk individuals. Young people can have serious effects as well as older people, he said.
“Everybody's at risk with the flu … being hospitalized, being in the ICU, having extensive pneumonia, these are the things we want to prevent and avoid.”
Other Important Vaccinations
Here are some other vaccines you don’t want to forget about.
- Pneumonia vaccine – This recommended for those 65 or older and younger people with certain conditions. It does reduce the incidence of pneumonia, but more importantly, reduces the complications and reduces the risk of lung failure, of other complications associated with having pneumonia, Dr. Lauter said.
- Tetanus vaccine – This is due every 10 years.
- Shingles vaccine – This is now available for folks over the age of 50.
- And of course, consult your child’s pediatrician to stay on top of their important vaccinations
Let the physician be your trusted guide, Dr. Lauter said. Have them identify what needs to be done – from vaccinations to screenings and preventive care to address your chronic conditions – so you can stay as healthy as possible.