Primary care in the COVID-19 era: do we still practice preventive care?
By Megan Armstrong, on 14 September 2021
This blog is by Alaa Alghamdi and tackles the practice of preventive care during the COVID-19.
To begin this blog, I have shared a medical case study that clearly addresses the topic at hand:
A 55-year-old male Saudi professor, married with five children, unknown to have any medical illness and not on medications. He presented to the emergency department (ED) complaining of unintentional weight loss of 10 kg in the last six months associated with fatigue. Initially, he attributed his symptoms to the psychological impact of the pandemic. Because of the fear of risk exposure to COVID-19 alongside lockdown restrictions of visiting health facilities for non-emergency, he avoided seeking medical help until he remarked jaundice. In the ED, a CT scan with IV contrast was performed. It showed circumferential wall thickening involving the short segment of the ascending colon with pericolonic enlarged lymph nodes and numerous hepatic lesions indicating metastasis. He was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and referred to a tertiary specialist hospital. Unfortunately, palliative care was the only option in his late presentation, and he passed within two months of his diagnosis.
This case might be one of many other cases that have been affected by disrupted healthcare during the pandemic that prioritised COVID-19 cases. Cancer could be one of the preventable deaths through appropriate screening and early detection (1). Screening is effective for both early detection and prevention in 80% of colorectal cancers (2) and has the potential to reduce colorectal cancer deaths by 60% (3).
Preventive screening is a vital part of primary healthcare practice (PHC). As with many other countries, Saudi Arabia (SA) has started preventive care services early with various programmes delivered through PHC (4). However, like many other countries, the Saudi Ministry of Health (MOH) has diverted resources to healthcare facilities to be able to manage the high numbers of COVID-19 patients. Although SA’s response to the pandemic places it at the highest ranks on international indexes (5) and the second at NIKKEI COVID-19 recovery index (6), the WHO showed that COVID-19 significantly impacts health services for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) globally, including SA (7).
My PhD project aims to explore the patient experience with PHC to provide the appropriate engagement and utilisation of PHC in SA. One of the key issues I have been exploring is the influence of COVID-19 on patient engagement with PHC. An important emerging point is the preventive screening during this pandemic for non-COVID conditions. There are growing concerns that have been arisen by using the online health services, which might have an indirect impact on health providers’ practices towards preventive care. In SA, many online health services have emerged throughout the pandemic, including telemedicine, online appointments and medication delivery. Although most participants expressed their appreciation of the unusual and massive use of online health services, the GPs’ practices towards regular screening are questionable. In my research position as a clinician interviewing a diabetic patient, I asked about the last time that haemoglobin A1c has been tested, the response was startling:
“I had it last year, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed tests appointments. They only care about dispensing the medications.” (P7)
Screening for diabetes complications such as retinopathy, diabetic nephropathy and diabetic foot, which are supposed to be done annually, has been postponed for most of the participants.
The children’s regular vaccination programme also has been affected. Some participants who attended a PHC regularly complained about the delay in completing their children’s vaccines due to difficulties in obtaining a vaccine appointment.
“They told me that the vaccinations were over and I have to wait for a new appointment. This is the reason why my children did not get their vaccinations until now, even though they are to join the school this year. My daughter still has to get one vaccination and my son still has to get two vaccinations.” (P15)
COVID-19 impact on care for patients with non-COVID conditions and the concern around preventive screening is not restricted to Saudi healthcare. A UK survey found that access to health services for people with long-term health conditions was 20% lower during the COVID-19 peak period. Some of the most significant falls in the use of health services are for mental health, heart disease, diabetes and cancer (8). According to the latest records by WHO (April 2021), 41 million people each year die from NCDs, including diabetes and chronic cardiovascular and lung diseases, which is equivalent to 71% of all deaths globally. In addition, each year, more than 15 million people die from NCDs between the ages of 30 and 69 years (9). Primary prevention is a vital component of the response to NCDs (1)(9), and reduces over one-third of all cancer cases (10). Moreover, people living with NCDs are at a higher risk of severe COVID-19-related illness and death (7)(11).
This reveals how preventive care is required at an alarming pace and emphasises the need for the urgent implementation of efficient prevention strategies during COVID-19. GPs’ efforts must be focused on adhering to evidence-based screening guidelines. Health system policymakers also need to recognise that prioritising COVID cases for pandemic control have other health consequences and demand responses to all health needs. This does not minimise the important measures taken to reduce the risk of COVID-19, but it is an opportunity to build a resilient recovery and emerge stronger from the pandemic.
- Burke CA. Colorectal Neoplasia [Internet]. 2017. Available from: http://www.clevelandclinicmeded.com/medicalpubs/diseasemanagement/gastroenterology/colorectal-neoplasia/#bib1
- Cunningham D, Atkin W, Lenz H-J, Lynch HT, Minsky B, Nordlinger B, et al. Colorectal cancer. 2010;375:18.
- He J, Efron JE. Screening for Colorectal Cancer. Advances in Surgery. 2011 Sep;45(1):31–44.
- Sebai ZA, Milaat WA, Al-Zulaibani AA. Health care services in saudi arabia: past, present and future. Journal of family & community medicine, 8(3), 19–23. 2001;
- Saudi Arabia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic places it at the highest ranks on international indexes [Internet]. ARABNEWS. 2021. Available from: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1880171/saudi-arabia
- GRACE L. Nikkei COVID-19 Recovery Index. 2021.
- Brunier A. COVID-19 significantly impacts health services for noncommunicable diseases [Internet]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news/item/01-06-2020-covid-19-significantly-impacts-health-services-for-noncommunicable-diseases
- Charlesworth. Shock to the system: COVID-19’s long-term impact on the NHS [Internet]. 2020. Available from: https://www.health.org.uk/news-and-comment/blogs/shock-to-the-system-covid-19s-long-term-impact-on-the-nhs
- WHO. Noncommunicable diseases [Internet]. 2021. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/noncommunicable-diseases
- Vineis P, Wild CP. Global cancer patterns: causes and prevention. The Lancet. 2014 Feb;383(9916):549–57.
- Bashir S, Moneeba S, Alghamdi A, Alghamdi F, Niaz A, Anan H, et al. Comorbidities in Patients with COVID-19 and Their Impact on the Severity of the Disease. Journal of Health and Allied Sciences NU. 2021 Jan;11(01):01–7.