Sonoma County hospitals, doctors contend with patient fears of getting coronavirus by seeking in-person medical care

Medical assistant Nita Gutierrez, wearing a surgical mask and blue gloves, handed the touchscreen tablet to Nita Johnson, 71, sitting in her white pickup.

Dr. Judy Widger already was visible on the tablet screen, waiting to begin the curbside medical visit Wednesday with her patient Johnson, in the parking lot outside the medical offices of Healdsburg Physicians Group.

For Johnson, who lives in Dry Creek Valley and does not have a computer at home, the curbside doctor appointment was a way to see her doctor for an annual checkup.

The drive-thru physician visit option was developed for the medical group’s less computer savvy patients. But it’s also part of a larger effort in Sonoma County to get people reconnected with doctors and hospitals, at a time when the health care sector is suffering from patients’ fears and anxiety they could be at greater risk of getting infected with the coronavirus by going to see a doctor or by rescheduling a hospital surgery delayed during the pandemic.

Whether it’s through curbside appointments, providing medical care over the phone or actually treating patients in person, area hospitals, physician groups and clinics are trying to get people back on track with their health care regimens. For the past couple months while local hospitals and doctors prepared for a dreaded surge of local COVID-19 patients, the unintended consequence was massive financial hemorrhaging. Now that county public health officials say the community’s virus risk has been dramatically suppressed and hospitals have been cleared to resume elective surgeries, medical providers are eager for patients who postponed or avoided care.

Yet health care professionals acknowledge many still worry it’s unsafe to see their doctor or to go to the hospital.

“I don’t know that they’re going to get over it, but we can ease their anxiety,” said Heather Balitzkat, practice manager of the Healdsburg Physicians Group. “We don’t want them to ignore health concerns and we’ve made great strides to reduce the risks.”

Dan Peterson, CEO of Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, said infection control always has been a high priority at the hospital and the pandemic has heightened efforts to keep the medical center virus and infection free. For Peterson, the matter recently became a personal one.

About 21/2 weeks ago, Peterson’s son Dallas, 4, fell off his bicycle and landed on his chin. The boy only learned to ride a bike a couple months ago.

“My wife and I sat there debating, should we bring him in,” Peterson said of the hard decision whether to take his son to the emergency room. One of his older children was wary, telling his parents “don’t let him get coronavirus.”

After a family discussion, they took Dallas to Sutter’s emergency department, where the boy received four stitches on his chin. “I felt 100% confident and comfortable to bring him in as a patient,” the hospital executive said.

That’s the message hospitals, medical groups and community clinics are trying to deliver to their patients, especially those with chronic conditions that need attention sooner rather than later.

Dr. Gary McLeod, president of Sutter Medical Group of the Redwoods, said it has become crucial to dispel the angst medical facilities are not safe for patients because of COVID-19. The medical group, which employs 125 physicians and 500 nurses, medical assistants and health care technicians, provides care to about 120,000 patients in Sonoma County. None of the medical group’s staff has contracted the virus, he said.

He said the Sutter Health affiliated medical group has implemented a number of disease control protocols and procedures to keep staff and patients safe.

One of the biggest precautions took place at the onset of the local coronavirus outbreak in March, when the medical group set up the county’s first respiratory care clinic at its medical offices on Summerfield Road in east?Santa Rosa rather than having it on the hospital property.

The respiratory clinic, which is open seven days a week, includes drive-thru virus testing and 1,200 patients have been tested thus far, McLeod said. At the medical group’s nearly two dozen offices near Sutter hospital and elsewhere in the county, all staff, patients and visitors are screened for COVID-19 symptoms.

Upon entry to the hospital or any of the medical offices, temperatures are taken and face coverings are required. Waiting rooms have been modified to increase social distancing and examination rooms are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between patient visits.

Hospital operator Kaiser Permanente, which has a Santa Rosa medical center and physician offices in a second city location, and other local medical providers have similar procedures.

Dr. Smita Rouillard, associate executive director of The Permanente Medical Group, said physicians are resuming non-urgent and elective surgeries in a coordinated manner with an eye on patient safety. On Monday, Kaiser physicians started performing high-priority elective treatments, including certain cardiac procedures that had been postponed, she said.

“We fully understand our patients’ anxiety and concerns regarding elective surgery during this unusual time,” Rouillard said in a statement. “We know that every procedure that has been considered non-urgent or elective during this pandemic is of great importance to the patient waiting for it.”

Patient worries over coronavirus is believed to be behind a decline in patient traffic in Healdsburg District Hospital’s emergency department, where volume is down 50%. Hospital officials said that’s troubling because emergency services have remained open during the pandemic. Brian Seekins, director of plant operations, said the hospital has undergone numerous changes to make it safe.

That includes converting three of the emergency department’s eight exam rooms to negative pressure rooms, allowing entry at only the emergency department and the main entrance, plus screening, temperature monitoring and reducing the flow of patients.

These days, Healdsburg hospital’s affiliated medical group and clinics are seeing 20% to 60% fewer patients. One of those clinics, the Center for Women’s Health in Windsor, was recently seeing 80% fewer patients but that has improved to a 50% decline, said Dr. Laura Kimbro, a gynecologist who runs the clinic.

“As a physician, that concerns me,” Kimbro said. “They’re delaying care, they’re delaying procedures, they’re delaying mammograms. I can hardly talk anyone into getting a mammogram. How long can these things be postponed?”

Dr. Bill Carroll, chief medical executive at Sutter hospital, said patients with chest pain, shortness of breath, fever, diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, among other ailments, should not delay care or simply hope they feel better soon. “It is far safer to come into hospital emergency rather than just try to ride those symptoms out at home,” Carroll said.

Christian Hill, a spokesman for St. Joseph Health, which runs both Santa Rosa Memorial and Petaluma Valley hospitals, said the county’s successful efforts to curtail the spread of COVID-19 have paved the way to safely treat people with many other health conditions that need medical attention.

“We are confident in our capacity to care for and treat patients who have serious health needs while keeping them safe,” Hill said.

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