By Dr. Garth Graham, MD, MPH, Vice President, Community Health & Impact, CVS Health, and Oliver T. Brooks, MD, President, National Medical Association
This story was also featured in U.S.News & World Report.
We have all seen the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had in communities across the country. And as we’ve watched the case numbers and death toll rise, we’ve seen an unsurprising trend: The virus began to level a disproportionate blow to minority and underserved populations.
This trend has continued, with Black and Hispanic communities across the United States showing more significant effects from COVID-19 compared with other demographic groups, whether through greater financial impacts, higher rates of infection or higher rates of death. When age is taken into account, the death rate for Black Americans is 3.6 times that of whites, and Hispanics' is 2.5 times higher, according to recent research from the Brookings Institution.
While elected leaders, public health officials and the business community have worked together to reach into communities with expanded testing and other resources, we know we’re treating a symptom of a larger issue. One in 2 Americans have a chronic disease, and it is well-documented that members of underserved communities face higher rates of conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that young Black Americans are living with diseases more common at older ages, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. Hispanic and Latino Americans have a 50% chance of developing type 2 diabetes.
We are working to address these racial and ethnic disparities in treatment and care that public health experts have known about for years, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare. Today, that mission is more critical than ever before as both of these crises converge to create another negative consequence of the pandemic: Many people with chronic conditions are delaying care due to fear of contracting COVID-19 in a health care setting.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, nearly half of Americans said either they or someone in their household has skipped or delayed needed medical care because of the coronavirus. Alarmingly, a significant share of those who postponed care reported that they or their family member's condition worsened as a result. According to a New York Times editorial by leaders of the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic, cancer diagnoses are down by 45 percent, and reports of heart attack and stroke are down by 38 and 30 percent, respectively – all indicating that individuals are not seeking care for acute emergencies or getting regular screenings.
While much is still unknown about COVID-19, the impacts of these devastating conditions are well-known, and treatment and preventive care protocols are well-established. It is absolutely critical for those suffering or at risk to continue regular doctor visits and seek treatment in the event of a medical emergency such as a stroke or heart attack. Aetna, a CVS Health company, is using data analytics to identify members with chronic conditions who may be at higher risk for COVID-19 and providing support to not only keep them from contracting the disease, but also to make sure they are continuing to receive the care they need for their existing health issues.
Health care professionals across the country understand this issue and are making themselves more readily available for health issues not related to COVID-19, while at the same time creating protocols to keep their patients safe. Telehealth has experienced a huge surge in adoption over the past few months, allowing patients and providers to connect virtually without risk of exposure to the virus. In fact, the utilization of telemedicine for virtual visits through CVS Health MinuteClinic is up by nearly 600% compared with the first quarter of 2019.
Yet even though the ability to see patients virtually can be a huge advantage in helping limit the spread of COVID-19, there are certain health issues that benefit from being addressed in a person-to-person setting. Making sure that people know it is safe to receive care in a clinical setting if it is needed is absolutely essential to maintaining the overall health of the population, particularly for individuals with chronic diseases.
While it is an uncertain time for our nation’s health, and we’re only beginning to see the ripple effects of gaps in treatment for chronic diseases, our aim is always to care for the patients we serve, especially the most vulnerable. That’s why we’re trying to help educate all Americans about the importance of maintaining treatment for chronic disease, dispel fears preventing people from going to the hospital or doctor’s office, and provide key resources and tools for patients and health care providers alike. The National Medical Association and other community-focused organizations can serve as trusted resources and deliver this message to underserved populations.
We all have a role to play in combating the health inequities that have plagued our underserved communities for many years. The impacts of COVID-19 have placed a bright light on that mission over the last few months and have made that work even more important.