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Navigating the Healthcare System During Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advocating for Yourself and Your Loved Ones

March 24, 2020

Yesterday, March 23, 2020, Michigan Governor Whitmer signed an executive order issuing Michiganders to “stay-at-home” to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease. The internet has become inundated with resources interpreting the “stay-at-home” order and on what to do if you get sick. Many are questioning what to do if you think you have the coronavirus (COVID-19)… Who do you call first — your primary care doctor, an urgent care, the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, or a coronavirus hotline?

It doesn’t seem to be very easy to navigate healthcare centers like doctors’ offices, hospitals, emergency rooms, and urgent care clinics if you have symptoms of coronavirus. Protocols, recommendations, directives, and mandates are changing every day. If you feel sick, what you should do and where you should go depends a lot on the type of symptoms you have and what your local government has provided as far as guidance, directives, and closures.

No matter what, it’s best for you to be a patient advocate for yourself and for your loved ones and not wait until it’s too late to seek help. That means not letting a hospital or doctor’s office discharge you or a loved one if you feel you’re too sick or waiting too long to seek medical assistance. To help you with this, here are some steps you can take:

Step 1: Ask yourself why you think you have COVID-19.

The first thing you should do is determine how sick you are and why. Ask yourself why you think you may have COVID-19 and think about your circumstances. Context is important. Did you recently return from abroad or have you had contact with someone internationally, especially from a country where there are a lot of known cases of the virus, like Italy, Spain, or China?

Another factor is if you’re older or have an underlying illness, like heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes which makes you a greater risk for a more severe illness. The CDC says that these symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure: fever, cough, and shortness of breath. But the fact that you have a cough or mild symptoms and haven’t had contact with anyone who’s sick, it doesn’t mean a coronavirus diagnosis. Remember that there are other bugs floating around like the common cold and the flu that cause headaches, stomach aches, and diarrhea. And don’t forget that plenty of people experience seasonal allergies in the springtime.

Odds are that it’s not the coronavirus. It might be the flu, especially if you have aches and pains—or it could be a bad cold.

Of course, if you develop emergency warning signs for COVID-19, seek medical attention right away. These emergency warning signs include:

  • Difficulty breathing;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest;
  • New confusion or inability to arouse; or
  • A bluish tint to the lips or face.

Also know that this list is not all-inclusive. If you have any other symptoms that are severe or concerning, consult your doctor.

Let’s get back to those steps. If you feel that you have something more serious or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, reach out to your physician.

Step 2: Contact your doctor.

It’s important to note that Step 2 is not “Visit your Doctor.” That’s because if it’s possible you may have the coronavirus, they don’t want you coming to the office in-person and potentially infecting others. Waiting rooms can be full of older patients with heart disease, cancer, and other maladies for whom the coronavirus could be fatal.

And even if you don’t have coronavirus, you risk infecting other patients with whatever you’ve got… like influenza, and upper respiratory infection, or a cold.

Call or email your primary care physician first for advice. Tell them about your symptoms, underlying health issues, and tell them why you suspect you have COVID-19. The doctor can then assess whether you’ve had significant exposures and whether you’re sick enough to come to the office for an in-person visit.

Another reason to call or email your doctor first is that more healthcare professionals are using telemedicine to reach those in isolated areas and to minimize contact with patients. Telemedicine lets the doctor initially evaluate your symptoms on a phone call, video chat, or live messaging to better understand how sick you are and to determine the next actions to be taken.

Step 3: Testing.

If your physician determines that your symptoms warrant coronavirus testing, she will coordinate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services to find the appropriate laboratory for coronavirus testing. The issue of testing remains fluid as there is a shortage of tests in some areas, and tests may be reserved for those who have a severe illness and patients who’ve been linked with others who have COVID-19.

Michigan’s medical professionals have stepped up COVID-19 testing plans with this growing pandemic and the state’s first reported deaths to the illness. And in addition to the state laboratory, MDHHS is providing testing results from hospitals and other entities on its website.

Michigan, like  a lot of other states, could use more COVID-19 test kits. Right now, the MDHHS is trying to obtain more, and there are also private tests being created by individual medical centers and commercial laboratories that will soon be available. Understand that they’re working hard and are doing the best that they can.

Step 4: Keep yourself and your family healthy at home.

Right now, patients with milder COVID-19 symptoms will be directed to isolate themselves at home, according to the CDC. As of yesterday, Michigan closed non-essential businesses, issuing a “stay-at-home” order for at least three weeks asking ALL residents to leave only when it’s absolutely necessary. Families should keep an infected person isolated as best they can and keep a distance from others in the home. Face masks should be worn only if a person is already sick to protect others from the infection. Rest and staying hydrated are also very important. This will help patients prevent pneumonia.

Takeaway

Use these four steps to help you with any symptoms you may be experiencing. Remember, it may not be the coronavirus. You could have a cold, influenza, or any of a dozen other respiratory viruses.

But a high fever and a persistent cough, or signs of respiratory distress like shortness of breath are indications that you could have the disease caused by the coronavirus. In that case, contact your doctor.

Wash your hands and take care.