Tips to stay safe when accessing medical care during (and after) pandemic

With health top of mind for many people amid COVID-19, many New Jersey residents may be trying to reprioritize their health, including scheduling appointments with our doctors, dentists and other health professionals.

While those appointments are important every year, they’re especially key in 2021, given that some elective procedures and routine visits were delayed or skipped due to potential exposure risks to COVID-19. In fact, an estimated 41% of Americans have avoided medical care because of COVID-19, including 12% who avoided urgent or emergency services and 31% who avoided routine care.

Delaying or canceling routine health care appointments or medical procedures, as well as ignoring emergency health care symptoms, may have a negative impact on your well-being. In some places, health care facilities have noticed more patients who are sicker than they otherwise would have been due to delaying care for so long.

To help stay as safe as possible when returning to the hospital or doctor’s office for medical care, here are three tips to consider:

Limit exposure risks

Public health recommendations to help limit the spread of COVID-19 are especially important to follow for in-person care appointments, including:

  • Wear a high-quality mask, such as a tight-fitting, multiple-layered cloth covering. If you have a medical condition that prevents the use of a mask, notify your health care provider in advance;
  • Avoid crowded waiting areas. In some instances, health care providers might ask you to wait in the car before your appointment begins;
  • Limit the number of people you bring with to your appointment or visitors to the hospital (or do not bring anyone). If you typically have a family member present during doctor appointments, you can call them while with the doctor and place your phone on speaker;
  • Expect to have your temperature checked and share information about your current health status, including any potential symptoms associated with COVID-19;
  • Check with your health care professional to learn if the health care facility has a COVID-19 action plan and the specific steps that may have been implemented.

Prioritize screenings and certain elective procedures

The number of preventive screenings, such as routine annual wellness exams and cancer checks, has declined by 43% amid the pandemic. And, just because a surgery or procedure is elective and can be scheduled in advance, that doesn’t mean it’s not essential to the patient’s health. In fact, many of these services could potentially save a life, preserve organ function and help prevent further harm from underlying conditions or diseases.

Medical services and screenings to consider prioritizing include:

  • Preventive screenings based on age or other risk factors, including colonoscopies and mammograms;
  • Chronic condition management, including for high blood pressure, diabetes and periodontal disease;
  • Medical emergencies, such as chest pains, facial or limb numbness, or injuries to the head or eyes, should always be treated as quickly as possible at an urgent care center or ER.

Focus on your oral health

Maintaining proper oral health is important year-round, but especially before and after a medical procedure. That is because germs in your mouth may grow while you are in the hospital following surgery, due to medications that may dry out your mouth or difficulty getting to the sink for routine brushing. That may increase your risk of hospital-acquired infections such as pneumonia. To counteract that, it’s important to consider oral health guidelines, including:

  • Brush your teeth (and tongue) for up to two minutes, after meals and before bedtime, using a soft-bristled toothbrush;
  • Floss daily and consider using a water flosser to support gum health;
  • Rinse for 30 seconds with a mouthwash, which may help kill bacteria and clean parts of the mouth brushing might miss;
  • Stay hydrated to help support overall well-being and help avoid issues with dry mouth, while limiting sugary drinks and snacks;
  • Continue routine oral health care, including checkups and cleanings, according to the American Dental Association. However, the World Health Organization recommends that nonemergency dental services be avoided in places where “intense, uncontrolled community transmission” of COVID-19 is occurring, so check local infection rates at websites such as

Finally, consider accessing public resources that can help prepare you for in-person medical appointments, as well as check virtual care options that may be available through your health care provider or health plan. Working to maintain and improve your health is important amid COVID-19, so considering these tips may help you stay safe while returning to in-person care appointments.

Dr. Donna O’Shea is the chief medical officer of population health management for UnitedHealthcare, the second-largest health insurer in New Jersey.