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How to Be a Patient During a Pandemic

Kelsey Tyler

From wearing a mask to using your car as a waiting room, a visit to the doctor looks very different today than it did before March 2020. The pandemic has forced doctors’ offices to change how they operate, and with cases rising across the country, these changes are likely to be here for a while.

While some appointments can be done virtually, many require in-person care. Patients shouldn’t hesitate to see their doctor in the office, says Dr. Sterling Ransone, a family medicine doctor in Deltaville, Virginia, and president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “It is safe to go see your doctor,” he says. “Most physicians’ offices have a good regimen to keep patients safe. And especially if you have a chronic disease, it’s really important to check in.”

You can help make your in-person doctor’s appointment both safe and efficient by following these expert-backed tips on best practices for going to the doctor during the pandemic: 

1) Call ahead with your concerns. “If this is an office you haven’t been to before, especially, don’t be embarrassed to call and ask what specific precautions the office takes,” says Dr. Erin Kershisnik, a family physician doctor in Olympia, Washington. While many doctors allow patients to wait in their cars before going to the exam room, others won’t. If you don’t feel comfortable spending time in what could be a busy waiting room, “ask yourself, how badly do I need this appointment right now?” Kershisnik says.

2) Look out for a COVID prescreen. Before you visit the office, your doctor will need to prescreen you for any potential COVID-19 symptoms, such as a loss of sense of taste or smell, fever or cough. Some doctors send their patients a brief written survey through the patient portal a day before the appointment, while others screen over the phone. Watchyour inbox for an alert about the screening, and make sure to pick up the phone if your doctor’s office calls you ahead of your appointment.

3) Make sure your mask fits. Wearing a mask thick enough to muffle your speech can make it hard to communicate during your appointment, says Kershisnik. At the same time, you want a mask that offers good protection, and most importantly, fits. “Make sure to have a mask that’s comfortable,” she says. “If you have a mask that you have to continually adjust, that’s the worst. Find the right fit for your mask.”

4) Limit what you bring. Ransone instituted a “bare below the elbows” policy in his office, meaning staff don’t wear long-sleeved clothing, rings, watches or other jewelry to work. That reduces the number of surfaces where the virus can linger. It can be good practice for patients too, he says. In addition to jewelry, consider leaving home items you might bring to the doctor normally, like your laptop, or definitely any meals or snacks.

5) Ditch the gloves and carry hand sanitizer. Gloves give a false sense of security, says Kershisnik, who prefers patients not to wear them to her office. Instead, use hand sanitizer stations at the office or bring your own sanitizer, and wash your hands with soap and water. You can also consider bringing a copper no-touch key device to use when opening doors or pressing elevator buttons. (Copper is an antimicrobial material.) But if you do, don’t just throw the device back in your pocket where it could spread germs. Instead, clean it with a disinfectant wipe after each use.

6) Consider wearing glasses or a face shield. They offer an extra level of protection, says Ransone, especially when having an in-office procedure or blood drawn, instances when you expect to be seated close to another person. If you don’t have prescription glasses, buy ones without a prescription or even wear a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses. “Eye protection is probably helpful,” Kershisnik says.

7) Write down your symptoms and bring medications. To make your appointment more efficient, think about your symptoms before you arrive and even write them down. This can help if your mask makes it hard for the doctor to hear you. Also, Ransone says, bring your medications with you. He’s seen several patients prescribed medication at urgent care. Having the bottle on hand helped them remember the details of the drug. 

8) Come alone. Unless you truly need assistance, leave your kids or partner at home. For patients who request to have their partners present, Ransone sometimes lets them Facetime into appointments.

9) Think about how you’ll pay. Some offices now bill all of their patients to avoid touching credit cards. Others still take payment on the spot. In those cases, bring your own pen to sign when charging your credit card. If your doctor accepts virtual payment methods, such as Apple Pay, make sure your phone is charged before you leave the house.  

10) Ask for accommodations. If you need to see a doctor, but you’re concerned their protocols aren’t robust enough, ask if there are other ways to limit your exposure. Ransone has seen patients in their cars and others at a picnic table outside his office. “It’s better ventilation,” he says. “If you’re not comfortable coming into the office, I’ll see you in your car. Tree visits, car visits, audio visits, I’ve done them all,” he says. “It’s whatever the patient and the physician feel comfortable with.”

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The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.