Getting to the doctor during a pandemic

Going anywhere during a pandemic is difficult but getting to medical appointments is even more fraught. Whether you need to get to the pediatrician, dentist, vet, internist or hospital, this five-part series from CNN Science and Wellness has you covered.

(CNN)It had been three weeks of gradually debilitating, searing pain before Johnny Staggs decided to call his local clinic for advice.

As a bariatric patient, Staggs, a 43-year-old food stamp office employee in Tennessee, had a history of dealing with hemorrhoid flare-ups, but they usually abated after a few days. He'd use over-the-counter pain medications, which alleviated the discomfort within a few hours, so there was no need to talk with his physician about it.
This time around, the medicines did nothing for his pain. It worsened to the extent where he was practically on his knees at work instead of sitting. He had to nearly stand up to watch a movie with his wife one Sunday. Housework he needed to complete went undone. He took OTC medications to get through the day, and evening versions at night since he couldn't sleep well because of the pain.
    Eventually, Staggs had to take a few days off work here and there, but ultimately he had to return once he ran out of sick leave. Even there, he was falling behind.
      Since the pain started up again in early March, Staggs debated whether he should request an appointment with his clinic.
      "My biggest concern was thinking, you know, you just hear in the news about how everyone's rushing in to get tested for the coronavirus and everything," he said. "And my thought was my issue overall seems so minor compared to if I took a spot [from] someone who had a more serious concern."
      But he also feared that leaving his pain unchecked would grow into a graver problem -- or an emergency. This internal dilemma is one many may face right now as they weigh the risk-to-benefit ratio of visiting their doctor's office.
        Here's what physicians say you should consider when you're debating with yourself over an appointment.

        Deciding whether to visit your doctor

        Since states differ in which medical services are available and when varying services will be reopening, there's no one-size-fits-all answer for whether someone should visit the doctor, said Dr. Gary LeRoy, a family physician in Ohio and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
        If you're thinking of scheduling an appointment or if you have one coming up, call ahead to have a clear understanding from your physician's office about what the plan is for appointments and whether staff is available, he said.
        "For chronic medical issues or for issues that really are nonurgent, we also encourage patients to call their doctors first," said Dr. Patrice Harris, an Atlanta psychiatrist and president of the American Medical Association. "Each patient is unique, and so once they call their doctor's office, their doctor will be able to determine if they need to come in or if they can be managed using telehealth."
        If you have a chronic health condition such as diabetes or cardiac issues, it's more important to visit your doctor since he or she may have to examine you in ways that can't be done via a telehealth appointment, LeRoy advised.
        "If it's a chronic thing you may say, 'Well, I'm a diabetic; it's just a routine diabetic six-month check-in.' Well, there's a lot of things that go into this routine visit that I'll ask the patient or make routine observations about," LeRoy said. "Or maybe we need to do labs at that six-month visit. So you can't assume that just because it's a routine visit that you can just put it off even longer.
        "So find out what it was that your physician wanted to do that they can't do over the telephone."