If your annual OB/GYN appointment was originally scheduled anytime in the last couple of months, you’re probably still waiting to see your doctor. Since March, most “non-essential” in-person medical care—including infertility treatments —has been put on hold to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 and to preserve personal protective equipment (PPE) for health-care workers on the front lines. Most OB/GYN practices have reserved in-person appointments for pregnant patients and those with gynecological problems or needing time-sensitive treatments, such as abortion. Otherwise, a typical gynecologist visit during coronavirus hasn’t been possible.
Telehealth has proved a helpful stopgap for many needs, including birth control prescriptions and medications for common infections. “About 90 percent of a diagnosis can often be made accurately with a person’s history,” says Mark DeFrancesco, MD, FACOG, an OB/GYN in Waterbury, CT. Even screenings for sexually transmitted infections (STI)—which are recommended every year for sexually active people under the age of 25 and those at higher risk of infection—can be done at a lab with a simple blood or urine sample, he adds. Some gynos are offering that now, but if yours doesn’t, there are a variety of reliable services, like Nurx and Pill Club, that offer STI testing and contraception prescriptions via telemedicine.
However, telehealth can’t replace an in-person annual OB/GYN check-in, says Dr. DeFrancesco. A truly full annual exam requires more than a patient history and chatting through symptoms and problem areas, he says; breast and pelvic exams have to be done in person to screen for undiscovered masses, abnormal discharge, and other abnormalities you can’t see from the outside. You’ll also have to see your doctor for a pap smear, which are recommended for all people with uteruses every three to five years in order to screen for cervical cancer.
As cases start to drop and states start to reopen their economies, doctor’s offices are also beginning to take on these “non-essential” (but still important) appointments. (Dr. DeFrancesco’s practice started to reopen on May 21.) All of these offices—gynos included—will be taking a variety of precautions to make sure that patients and staff are protected, including limiting the number of patients they see in a day, consolidating appointments, and setting up hand-washing and sanitation stations.
It’s a brave new world, but some of these changes may make your OB/GYN visits more efficient long after the pandemic ends. Here are a few things you can expect from a gynecologist visit during this phase of the coronavirus.
You can call for an appointment
If you’re concerned about whether it’s safe to make an in-person visit, talk to your doctor. “We wouldn’t reopen if we didn’t think we could do so safely,” says Dr. DeFrancesco. However, he says that he’s asking high-risk patients—including those who are over 70 or immunocompromised—to wait longer before coming in for their annual exams. Other OB/GYNs likely will have similar policies, since they align with recommendations from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
And don’t worry about potentially taking up an appointment from someone else who might more urgently need care. “If we knew we had patients who take priority, we’d reach out to them first,” says Dr. DeFrancecso.
You won’t spend much time in the waiting room
The hour-long pre-visit wait is over—at least for now. “We will be at probably two-thirds our normal volume, but we’ll see patients in a safer manner,” says Dr. DeFrancsco.
Doctors are working to streamline their practice to see patients immediately, so there won’t be patients building up in the waiting room. Dr. DeFrancsco says his practice is also allowing patients to wait in their cars; they’ll receive a text when it’s time to go in. (That also means it’s more important than ever to be on time to your appointment!)
You’ll be screened before you enter the building
To keep patients from lingering in the waiting room, Dr. DeFrancesco’s assistants are calling patients the day before their appointments to fill out forms over the phone that are typically completed at check-in. “It’s one of the efficiencies from all this,” he says.
An assistant will also likely check your temperature at the door and offer a spritz of hand sanitizer before you proceed to the exam room.
You and your doctor will wear masks
Doctors are stocking up on personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure that they don’t contract or spread the coronavirus. Expect your OB/GYN to wear an N95 mask (a medical-grade respirator mask), gloves, and goggles. You’ll also likely be required to wear a mask in the office.
The office will be more like an operating room
Health-care providers will sanitize everything more frequently and wipe down exam rooms with bleach between patients. “We’ve always been clean, but it will be closer to sterile moving forward,” says Dr. DeFrancesco.
Your appointment may feel a bit less personal
Don’t expect much small talk: Because the risk of transmission increases the more time two people spend in a room together, your doctor’s goal will be to get you in and out of the office as quickly as possible. If you do have specific problems, your doctor will of course take the time to hear the full story and ask questions.
“We won’t short-change patients, but some of the social, warm fuzzy side might be limited,” says Dr. DeFrancesco. “It’s a different world now. It might feel a little different, but we’ll be just as thorough and hopefully just as helpful.”
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