Hospitals are reporting less heart attacks and strokes – Here’s why that may not be a good thing

While you’ve probably skipped your annual check up or dental cleaning, a new study suggests that Americans from coast to coast have been avoiding visiting hospitals—even when they perhaps shouldn’t. According to Yale New Haven Health, hospitals across the U.S. have collectively reported a significant drop in visits for heart attacks, strokes, and other serious medical emergencies. 

While more studies are currency underway to see if there is a correlation between a decrease in strokes and heart attacks and social isolation, many medical experts believe that patients are simply delaying hospital visits out of fear of catching COVID-19.

“There is no biological reason to believe that this coronavirus decreases strokes from occurring—or heart attacks or appendicitis or other conditions we are seeing fewer cases of in the hospital,” said Charles Matouk, MD, chief of neurovascular surgery at Yale Medicine in a statement. “The messaging to ‘shelter-in-place’ has left people thinking that if they have a serious condition, it’s not safe to come to the hospital. For good reason, people fear they are violating those policies if they come in.”

Although it does stand to reason that many medical procedures can and should be put on hold—such as hip replacements or other non-urgent surgeries—doctors urge that is simply not the case for acute chest pain, severe abdominal pain, signs of strokes, and other medical emergencies.

In fact, Eric Velazquez, MD, chief of cardiovascular medicine for Yale Medicine, urges Americans to take these symptoms just as seriously as before the lockdown. “In the flurry of worrying about COVID-19, people may have forgotten or not realize that there are reversible conditions that require urgent attention. No one needs to suffer in silence at home and miss out on life-benefiting treatment.”

Dr. Velazquez added that getting immediate help for these urgent medical issues could be “the difference between a heart attack that can be treated without any loss of function and death or severe heart failure.”

While serious heart attacks have fallen by 38% in March, heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States and doctors are still trying to figure out whether heart attack rates have truly declined or whether people are just suffering in silence at home.

“We have all been postulating. Maybe there is some miraculous cure from all of us staying at home. Air pollution is down, and we know that impacts the risk of coronary artery disease,” Dr. Velazquez said. “Physical stress may be decreased, but emotional stress and anxiety are likely higher, so that may be a wash. Personally, I don’t think it’s that we are eating better or drinking less.”

Whether it’s a phenomenon related to confinement and social isolation or patients are truly avoiding going to the hospital, Dr. Matouk wants everyone to know that all of the systems of care for stroke and other urgent medical issues continue to be in place and are fully operational. “We are ready and able to help those with emergencies,” he added.