The country’s health workers are still up in their ears due to the unrelenting number of COVID-19 cases, which recently have been even trending higher, but another challenge is now rearing its head: the growing number of serious non-COVID-19 cases.
Due to the pandemic last year, many patients with terminal illnesses opted to stray away from the hospital for fear of contracting COVID-19. Also, the lockdown limited public transportation and economic opportunities for many, thereby restricting access to the hospital even if some wanted to visit.
Now, the build-up of patients with delayed treatments are coming to the fore, as those with already worsened conditions seek help.
At the March 8 press briefing by Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, Philippine General Hospital (PGH) Director Dr. Gap Legaspi disabused notions that they are being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.
“It’s not true that we are being overrun with COVID patients. Na-overrun po kami ng non-COVID patients nitong mga nakaraang buwan,” said Legaspi.
Legaspi said there are days when out of 100 cases in the emergency room, only three are COVID-19 cases.
The Department of Health designated the PGH as a COVID-19 referral center in March last year. Though the move meant expanding the number of beds for COVID-19 cases, it did not necessarily mean rejecting non-COVID-19 cases. Still, the number of non-COVID-19 cases dropped.
Dr. Epi Collantes, head of the PGH Stroke Team, acknowledged the unintended consequence.
“Sa PGH because it’s a COVID referral center so mostly for a year concentrated on COVID treatments so medyo napapabayaan yung iba, like yung cancer patients and others,” Collantes told PhilSTAR L!fe.
From 1,316 stroke cases in 2019 in PGH, the number went down to 829 for 2020.
Dr. Maria Socorro Sarfati, head of the Department of Neurology and Stroke Unit of the Baguio General Hospital (BGH), shared the same experience.
Sarfati said that from an average weekly case of over a hundred for stroke patients before the pandemic, the number shrunk to a record low of 11 in April 2020, only bouncing back gradually to over 20 cases in the months after.
“They feared going to the hospital,” Sarfati said.
To remedy the situation, both hospitals tried teleconferencing to continue monitoring patients. But the strategy encountered a number of difficulties as many PGH and BGH patients were poor and hence had no access to the Internet due to costs related to connectivity and handsets, and also many patients were old and had difficulty navigating technology.
Because of this, the hospitals just checked on their patients through phone or through teleconsult. But as in the case of PGH, Collantes admits it was also not as easy because it’s often hard to get through the numbers of PGH due to the large volume of callers.
Maraming hindi tumatawag so they come in with seizures already.
“Maraming hindi tumatawag so they come in with seizures already,” said Collantes.
Dr. Tony Leachon, who practices medicine at the Manila Doctors Hospital, echoed the same sentiments in a separate interview.
“Mas marami talagang na-a-admit na non-COVID cases tulad ng mga stroke and heart attack, kasi almost six months to one year na walang check-up yan so they will come to the hospital complicated already, yung hypertension and cancer for example mas lumalala,” said Leachon.
“Right now, I am more busy managing the non-communicable diseases like stroke, heart attack, and cancer kasi ang daming cases na ngayon sa hospital,” said Leachon.
We are continuing the campaign telling people that stroke is an emergency.
For stroke cases, Collantes and Sarfati said that the numbers are now picking up, but are still nowhere near the pre-COVID levels as many people are still afraid of going to the hospital for fear of contracting COVID-19.
“We are continuing the campaign by telling people that stroke is an emergency, they have to seek consultation as soon as they have a stroke. We want people to realize that even if they come to a COVID referral safe, they are safe and they will be taken care of,” said Sarfati.