Some people avoid hospitals more than others, fear COVID-19 infection

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Emergency-room visits unrelated to COVID-19 declined 42% compared to this time last year, and doctors are associating the decline with patients’ fear of contracting the coronavirus.

Hispanics and Black Americans are significantly more scared of going to the emergency room compared to white Americans, according to a new survey conducted by The Harris Poll in collaboration with the American Heart Association. Researchers found Hispanics and Black Americans would rather stay home than go to the hospital even if they are experiencing symptoms of heart attack or stroke.

News 8 spoke with Tim Harms from the American Heart Association’s Indiana Branch. He broke down study findings, discussed reasons behind the disparity, and what the American Heart Association is doing to help everyone understand hospitals are safe. 

News 8’s Mary Gillis: I understand some American’s are still afraid of going to the hospital to seek treatment for some really severe conditions they need help with. Why would they be afraid to go to the hospital these days?

Tim Harms with American Heart Association: We’ve had some interesting things we’ve found out over the last few months and basically what we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic is that emergency room visits for heart attack are down about 20%. When you look at heart attack it’s still the leading cause of death in the United States. Stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death and the leading form of long-term disability. Both of those are obviously life-threatening emergencies that need immediate attention. Yet, people are hesitant to go to the emergency room especially during these times and it’s primarily due to COVID-19. 

This week, we had a poll commissioned by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Heart Association with some really startling numbers and it shows that more than half of Hispanics (55%) and almost half of Black Americans (45%) say they are scared to go to the ER because of COVID-19. The numbers for white Americans are also high — about 40%, but still lower than some of those other groups and so we’re obviously very concerned about and we want to reach out and assure people that they need to call 911 and they need to go to the hospital and the emergency room when things like heart attack and stroke occur. 

Gillis: What do you think there is such a difference?

Harms: There are probably several reasons. In some instances it’s just some cultural differences between the different groups. I think specifically for Hispanics you could look at language barriers and when they go to a doctor or hospital or ER they face the language barrier and maybe feel some insecurity about that and not knowing what to do. And I think another big factor is if folks have insurance, what the cost might be … some of those things. But I think culturally there are differences between people.

Gillis: Should we be worried? We have PPE (personal protective) equipment, hospitals are assuring us they are a safe place to go. What are your thoughts?

Harms: You’re right. Hospitals are a very safe place to go. In fact, all of the hospitals we work with here locally. they’ve all implemented strategies where they treat patients in separate areas of the hospital — places like the emergency room, the catheter lab where they would do treatment for heart attacks, and places where they would treat strokes. All of these are separate places and, like most businesses, hospitals are doing their best of upgrading their cleaning methods and just keeping everything sanitary and free of the COVID-19 virus. So absolutely. The hospitals are a safe place to be if you are experiencing a life-threatening situation and you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out and go or call 911. 

Gillis: It sounds like hospitals are one of the safest places to be these days. I mean, we don’t want anyone in the hospital, but still. So what do we need to tell people? What do they need to know, especially Black Americans and Hispanic communities? And what is the American Heart Association doing to get this message out there?

Harms: The American Heart Association has developed a Don’t Die of Doubt campaign, and it’s multilingual and available in both English and Spanish. We’re trying to reach everybody and reassure them that if you’re having a heart attack and you have those warning signs of chest pain or nausea or sweating, all of those things unexpectedly, if you’re experiencing a stroke, you’ll have the face drooping, weakness on one side of your body, slurred speech — those are all medical emergencies requiring you to go to the hospital as soon as you can to get treated. So it’s a multifaceted campaign. We’re doing outreach. We have a dedicated website for it in both English and Spanish. We’ve developed public service announcements that are airing on radio and television and we have a social media campaign that is being promoted nationally. So we’re doing a lot of outreach to assure people that they can safely call 911 in case of an emergency and that their risk of infection is low to zero when they get treated for heart attack and stroke. 

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over five years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets.