As hospitals and area clinics saw an influx of COVID-19 patients and residents were cautioned to protect themselves against the spread of the virus, many patients delayed their routine checkups and screenings.

Dr. Amelia Averyt, associate medical director of clinical family practice at Legacy Community Health, said patients have postponed diabetes care, blood pressure monitoring, regular cancer screenings, annual exams and pediatric care.

“As the pandemic blossomed, that fear set in,” she said. “People ... at higher risk of complications just decided to stay at home.”

A study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found 20% of U.S. residents were unable or chose to delay medical care for a serious problem at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, and 15% were unable to get elective procedures done. More than half of both these groups reported negative health consequences as a result.

Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital had a telemedicine platform in place before the pandemic, and Chief Operating Officer Carl Little said it was a quick pivot that helped fill some gaps.

“I think everyone in health care believes that telemedicine has its place and will continue to have its place just due to the convenience and the affordability of it,” Little said. “Now the challenge, of course, is that you can’t treat a lot of things via telemedicine.”

Because cancer screenings, blood work and other observations must be done in person, Averyt said practitioners have missed opportunities to diagnose developmental issues in children and catch cancer in the early stages due to this trend of postponing doctor visits.

Now that coronavirus vaccines are being distributed, Houston Methodist Willowbrook officials said they are seeing a surge of noncoronavirus patients returning to in-person visits. Little said he continues to emphasize the importance of scheduling routine preventive procedures.

“We’ve heard specific instances just from our physicians ... where people had delayed treatment, and it certainly makes it more complex and challenging to treat those patients—whether it’s more advanced cancer, heart disease or neurological issues,” Little said.