Delayed medical care

October 13th, 2020
This article is featured in the Acting Missionally issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

The unforeseen impact of COVID-19

According to a study conducted by Kaiser Family Health, nearly half (48%) of Americans report that at least one member of their household has skipped or postponed medical care due to the pandemic. Emergency room doctors report that many patients experiencing heart attacks, appendicitis, and strokes are delaying care, resulting in significant complications with sometimes fatal consequences. Vaccination rates for all ages have also decreased, with declines as high as 90% for children in some regions of the United States.

While many are delaying medical care due to concerns about contracting COVID-19, others are putting off treatment after losing both income and health insurance due to unemployment. Indeed, unemployment rates in many regions are as high as they’ve been since the Great Depression. The cost of these missed hospital and doctor visits may have long-term effects extending far beyond the pandemic.

Why do people delay medical care?

While the coronavirus might be a novel reason to avoid seeking care, the issue of delayed medical care is not new. People delay medical care for a variety of reasons, ranging from personal and emotional to financial concerns and lack of access. Some experience anxiety related to doctors’ visits or fear contracting an illness from medical facilities. Others are embarrassed about their symptoms or are simply in denial that something is wrong. Mental health issues can compound these issues and delay medical care further.

Medical appointments are also time-consuming, which is especially challenging for low-income workers who lack paid time off. Others have difficulty prioritizing appointments among their many time commitments. In some areas of the country, access is an issue. Lack of public transportation, the distance to medical offices or hospitals, the quality of care available and language barriers all provide additional frustrations that lead to delays.

For many Americans, lack of health insurance or insufficient health insurance coupled with the high cost of health care in the United States is a significant barrier to accessing care. Collectively, this constellation of obstacles contributes to concerning delays that frequently lead to worsening symptoms and more serious diagnoses.

The cost of delayed medical care

Delaying medical care poses significant risks, especially for those with chronic conditions. Delays often result in emergency room visits or hospital stays that could have been prevented or managed if detected earlier. Consequently, not only is the cost to individuals’ health greater, their medical bills are also considerably higher once they finally receive care. For patients lacking insurance and for those who are underinsured, higher medical bills often lead to significant debt which creates ongoing financial stress. Additionally, this trend of delayed care also has a negative impact on the wider economy as workers miss more time due to poor health and lose out on wages, while hospitals are forced to take losses from uncompensated care.

Many who delay medical care suffer from avoidable illnesses and complications that have an impact on their overall health. Routine physical exams, screenings and preventative care — including immunizations — are essential for early detection of serious conditions. Yet, many are forced to push back these routine procedures or skip them altogether for all the reasons we’ve discussed. However, the simple truth remains that no matter the reason, delayed medical care rarely has positive outcomes.

Offering Christ’s love and mercy

God values all human lives and calls us to do the same. Lack of insurance, high medical costs and lack of access to health care are injustices that contribute to ongoing physical and financial difficulties for the vulnerable among us. Jesus explicitly calls us, through his words as well as his actions, to extend care to and stand up for the vulnerable. Despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act, 11% of Americans still do not have health insurance. Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the country at 18%. The way health care is structured in the United States sets up medical care as a consumer good. This generally leads to better health care for those who can afford it and delayed or emergency health care for those who cannot. At a structural level, preventative and timely health care is vital to helping people be healthy and to keep that care affordable.

On a local level, many communities have nonprofits and clinics that provide health care at low or no cost to individuals who are uninsured. Many churches and other faith-based organizations also help low-income people to pay their medical bills. As communities of faith, we can support these responses with our time and our financial resources, furthering their work in our own areas. We can also share these resources with uninsured persons, connecting them with the help necessary to receive the care they need.

In our personal lives, we likely know someone who is currently delaying medical care. We can live out our call to love our neighbors by showing compassion and offering to help them receive this care, no matter the reason for their delay. Additionally, we can check in with people in our lives who suffer from chronic conditions, ensuring they are continuing to receive the care they need to stay healthy. In this work, we are extending God’s love and mercy to others as we enable them to access medical care in a timely manner and move toward renewed health.

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