Primary care remains priority amid pandemic, territorial medical director says

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Prescriptions, preventative health and primary care don’t stop in a pandemic.

As housebound residents settled in amid COVID-19, territorial medical director Dr. Sarah Cook has encouraged them to continue seeking regular healthcare while embracing virtual and distance care.

“We’re not asking anyone to ignore their regular health-care needs. The message is not that we’re no longer providing primary care. We’re absolutely providing primary care,” she said, acknowledging however, that other services like elective surgery will be temporarily withdrawn.

Territorial medical director Sarah Cook (left) and chief public health officer Kami Kandola at a press conference last week in the legislative assembly. Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

That said, the majority of the territory’s doctors and nurses continue to provide primary care, she said.

“We don’t want people to suffer from all the other health-care conditions that are out there while we go through this. That’s (our) aim, to continue to provide that high quality care,” Cook said.

To do that, she advised residents to embrace virtual and distance care. In the case of strep throat, for example, a call to health services can lead to an assessment by phone, and in some cases a quick throat swab before receiving care.

Cook also encouraged use of online booking in Yellowknife, where residents can leave their name, number and email as an alternative to frustrating phone service backlogs.

“We want to decrease viral exposure however we can,” she said.

Refilling prescriptions

Prior to the virus, health-care providers already asked patients to avoid coming in for a prescription refill, unless it required an assessment, Cook said. That’s because refills can be virtualized in most cases.

Some exceptions apply. For example, a patient on thyroid medication would need blood test prior to a prescription refill. The same would apply for checking one’s blood pressure, or other lab work.

After that, the patient and the provider can speak on the phone to discuss the results and decide on updates.

From there, the health-care provider can call the pharmacy to update most prescriptions. If the provider is still physically present in a health-care facility, the information could be faxed.

“But it does decrease the kind of middle appointment of having to come into discuss the refill of the medication,” she said.

Patients with chronic ailments such as diabetes may require blood work every four months, Cook said. But like prescriptions or mental health assessments, much of diabetes check-ins can now be done virtually.

Other ailments — like colds and flus, or muscle and joint issues — can also all be assessed virtually, she said. Meanwhile, other concerns, such as bladder infections can include an initial assessment over the phone or the web before a lab test follow-up.

“We still have all our primary care providers providing primary care,” she said. Some are assigned to COVID screening, but that’s typically one doctor at a time working with nurses.

Supporting health care providers

One of the risks of the pandemic is losing health-care providers to illness, according to Cook. That can impact primary care.

“It’s very important that we keep our health-care providers safe and healthy to be able to maintain the foundation of … our health-care system, which is primary care.”

Personal protective equipment, and handwashing are all efforts that can keep them safe as they serve patients, she said.

The most important way to support them is for the public to practice social distancing, she said. That means staying at home, avoiding person to person contact and maintaining space from others.

If too many are infected at the same time it will overwhelm the health-care system and its frontline workers, she said. To avoid that, it’s vital that residents heed chief public health officer Kami Kandola’s advice, she said.

Meanwhile, staying at home decreases the chance of viral transmission, allowing primary care without some of the risks.

“That’s the number one thing people can do to help healthcare providers, because it’s going to decrease the strain on the system,” she said.

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