Have you pushed regular checkups to the backburner during the pandemic? Here’s a plan to get back on track with your health.
If you’ve been putting off your regular healthcare appointments due to the pandemic, you’re not alone. And while the pandemic is in no way over (we’re glaring at you, Delta variant), it’s important to keep on top of other health maintenance to make sure you stay as well as possible—especially if you have a chronic condition.
“People have been staying home [during the pandemic], and it’s wonderful that we have worked to stay safe, but don’t stay away from medical care,” says Jennifer Phillips, M.D., professor and associate chair of family medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque, NM. “In our healthcare system, not only has COVID increased, but other diseases have also gotten out of control because people have stopped care.” And this is a nationwide trend—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), four in 10 adults delayed or avoided medical care during the pandemic. And the consequences of that delayed care are serious. For example, a study in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology reported that there was an increase in heart disease-related deaths during the pandemic.
That’s why it’s time to get back on top of important checkups and medical treatments, she says.
Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to connect with your healthcare providers. “The one silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it did result in most [healthcare systems] offering of virtual care options for patients, so you can schedule video or virtual visits,” says John B. Anderson, Jr., M.D., assistant professor of family medicine and community health at Duke University in Durham, NC. And while not all healthcare needs can be managed virtually, it’s a good place to start and can help minimize your in-person risks. For other must-do items (more on that below), you can usually safely make the trek to your doctor’s office—by this point in the pandemic, most healthcare offices have streamlined their safety protocols to help protect patients, says Dr. Anderson.
So if you’ve lapsed on your healthcare maintenance and want to get back on track, here’s what to tackle first. Think of this as your adult “back-to-school” health checklist.
Get Your COVID-19 Vaccine (and Any Other Shots You Need)
If you’re making a list of healthcare to-dos to tackle, this one should be at the very top. “The first thing is to get the COVID vaccine if you are a person who can get it,” says Dr. Phillips. It’s true—COVID-19 is definitely not over, and getting the jab can help protect your overall health as well as the health of those in your community.
Not sure where to go? Search for locations offering the vaccine near you at Vaccines.gov, or ask your regular healthcare provider.
Once you’ve got that done, it’s also worth checking whether you’re overdue for any other vaccines. “We’re getting ready for flu season, so flu shots are important, as are pneumonia and shingles vaccines for those who need them,” says Dr. Anderson.
Get Your Annual Checkup
What’s that? Your blood pressure reading was totally fine at your last checkup? Well, we hate to break it to you, but that was in 2019—before the pandemic hit. It’s remarkable what a year and a half of working from home, increased takeout, and living on the sofa can do to your blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol. That’s why seeing your primary care provider for your annual checkup should be the first thing on your list. Your doc can let you know where those numbers stand now—and what you need to do about it.
“We know that having a primary care provider can really help [reduce] the cost of healthcare downstream,” says Dr. Phillips. That means that seeing a provider regularly—whether a family medicine doctor or even a nurse practitioner—for preventive care and regular checkups can help you stay on track with your health and avoid more serious health problems down the line, according to the National Institutes of Health.
If you are going back to a primary healthcare provider you’ve seen before, they likely can let you know at your annual wellness checkup if you’re overdue for any specific tests, checkups, or other maintenance.
“Having a physical exam every year as an adult is not a bad way to go,” says Dr. Phillips. In this exam, your doctor can check your vital signs, your blood pressure, and request labs to check things like your cholesterol, screen for diabetes, and more, she says. It’s also a great opportunity to check on things you’ve been brushing off over the lasty year-plus, like that funky mole on your back that you’re worried could become cancerous. This yearly checkup can help you detect problems early and get them under control before they become more serious, such as issues like high blood pressure or cholesterol that can lead to heart disease.
Once you reconnect with a primary care provider, start scheduling those overdue screenings and tests for things like breast and colon cancer. What you need and when will vary based on your gender, age, and health history. “Most healthcare systems have now have electronic healthcare records [or patient portals] where there will be alerts and ways of checking whether you are due for certain health maintenance interventions, such as whether you need a mammogram or colonoscopy,” says Dr. Anderson.
Another great option, Dr. Phillips adds, is to use a handy free app from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to look up the latest recommendations for health services you may need. “You can plug in your age and gender and find out if you should have a mammogram, if you should have a pap test, or other tests, for example,” she says.
Common regular screenings to ask your doctor about include the following, per the American Cancer Society:
Breast cancer screening: Mammograms are typically done yearly starting at age 45, although this can vary based on your personal risk. “How often [you are screened] should be a shared decision between you and your provider,” says Dr. Phillips.
Cervical cancer screening: Screening for cervical cancer should begin at age 21, using either a test for human papillomavirus (HPV, a virus that can sometimes lead to cervical cancer) or a Pap test. Usually, screening is done every three to five years.
Colorectal cancer screening: Those at average risk of colorectal cancer should begin getting regular screening at age 45. Screening can include a stool test, a blood test, or a colonoscopy. Talk to your doctor about how often you should be screened.
Prostate cancer: Beginning at age 50, men should discuss whether they should receive prostate cancer testing with their doctor. Screening may be done with a blood test. That said, some experts recommend against regular screening because there has been no proven benefit, says Dr. Phillips. “If you have a sense that there is something wrong or you are concerned, you may be screened, but not everyone needs to have these tests.”
Lung cancer screening: Certain people at high risk of lung cancer are recommended to get yearly screening with a low-dose computerized tomography (CT) scan.
Screening for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other infections: STI screening—such as tests for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and syphilis—is recommended for anyone who has been sexually active, young or old, says Dr. Phillips. Most STI tests should be done yearly for the average adult—but talk to your doc about what they recommend for you specifically. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force also recommends you get screened at least once in your life for hepatitis C.
Remember: What screenings you get and how often can vary based on your personal health and circumstances. Work with your doctor to make an informed decision together about your screening schedule.
Tend to Your Eyes and Teeth
One of the first things to fall by the wayside during the beginning of the pandemic were non-urgent checkups for dental and eye health, says Dr. Anderson. In fact, one study in JDR Clinical and Translational Research found that nearly half of adults surveyed delayed going to the dentist or getting dental care during the pandemic. “I feel confident that most places have put appropriate safety protocols in place so that it’s OK for patients to keep those appointments with their dentist and eye provider now to make sure they are getting those done.”
In general, a good rule of thumb is to see your eye doctor yearly (especially if you wear glasses or contacts) and your dentist every six months for a cleaning, says Dr. Phillips.
These are especially important appointments for people with certain chronic diseases due to the potential impact of those illnesses on other systems of the body, she adds. “For example, people with diabetes may need to see an eye doctor more frequently.”
Don’t Forget About Mental Health
Your primary care doctor should screen you yearly for depression—but if not, make sure to reach out for support if you need it. “COVID has certainly been a very stressful time, so if you are having mental health concerns, checking in with your primary care provider is a good place to start,” says Dr. Anderson. “They can get you connected with appropriate resources.” Those resources may include a therapist, psychiatrist, or other behavioral health supports.
“Certainly, if you have behavioral health conditions, you absolutely want to keep up with your regular mental health care providers,” he adds. “Most mental health providers are doing a lot of their visits virtually, which makes it easier for patients to stay connected.”
The Bottom Line
Getting caught up on overdue healthcare tasks can be overwhelming, so start with the most pressing needs above first. And if you’re struggling to figure out what those are, reconnecting with a primary care provider and working with them to prioritize your overdue healthcare needs is an excellent place to start.
“Your doctor’s office is open, and we want to see you, whether in person or virtually,” urges Dr. Phillips. “Don’t stay out of care—it’s incredibly important to keep up with medications and check up with things that need to be checked up on.”