Pandemic-era health screenings are down: Why Northwestern Medicine doctors say that’s not good

Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital doctor urges patients to continue routine screenings

Jennifer Kerr, BSN, RN-BC, Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute Clinical Coordinator, demonstrates a PAD screening on Krysten Bortner BSN, RN,Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute Clinical Program Manager at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.

DeKALB – In the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic forced doctors and area hospitals to delay routine health screenings amid viral surges and overburdened hospital workers.

Now, medical experts are urging patients to return to preventive screenings to keep up with preventive care.

Among those who had their screening pushed was Carolee DeBall of DeKalb, a registered nurse for 41 years including 35 at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital. In 2018, she underwent a routine screening for breast cancer but missed it in the fall of 2019, thinking she might be able to get in soon after.

However, 2020 had other plans for the health care field, and as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation, DeBall missed her planned screenings that year, too.

In September 2021, back on track, DeBall had a mammogram done, and her doctors asked her to return for additional screenings. In the first week of October 2021, she had a biopsy.

“My diagnosis was then finalized after that biopsy,” DeBall said.

Ductal carcinoma in situ is the form of cancer that was detected. DCIS is the presence of abnormal cells inside a milk duct in the breast. It’s considered the earliest form of breast cancer, stage 0. The cancer was noninvasive and hadn’t spread out of her duct.

However, DeBall still needed treatment.

“My partial mastectomy was done the second week of November 2021,” DeBall said. “My five radiation treatments were done in February 2022.”

Since then, DeBall has seen three doctors inside the Northwestern Medicine system, including Dr. Faisal Saghir, and said she has had positive reports.

Saghir, an oncologist at Kishwaukee Hospital, said he’s seen many patients with stories similar to DeBall’s. After the pandemic began, the hospital put routine screenings on hold for several months in 2020 as surges overwhelmed local hospitals.

He said data shows a return to “pre-COVID-19″ levels of screenings in recent times. That’s why he and other doctors are urging patients who may have missed a screening to return to the hospital.

“You can’t make up for the lost time. We can’t go back in time and change things,” Saghir said. “If someone is still on the fence regarding screenings, I think they should be coming to get screened because it is a safe environment now.”

Northwestern Medicine also recently started offering a new free monthly screening that tests for artery disease. The test itself is a simple, noninvasive ankle brachial test, which checks for peripheral artery disease by comparing the blood pressure in a patient’s upper extremity, like an arm, with their lower extremity in their ankle.

More common in older patients, peripheral artery disease is a chronic condition in which narrowed blood vessels reduce blood flow in a person’s limbs, which can cause leg pain and an increased risk of heart disease.

“Sometimes people have unexplained leg pain or leg aching, and we would want them screened,” said Dr. Christopher Berry, who specializes in interventional cardiology with Northwestern Medicine.

Berry recommends that those who are 50 or older or have diabetes get the arterial screening.

The condition itself, while incurable, can be manageable if diagnosed. Patients with peripheral arterial disease often are at a greater risk of heart attack, stroke or amputation.

“It may help with a diagnosis or cause of symptoms like leg pains,” Berry said. “If you do identify, you may reduce risk of worsening leg problems like amputation, and you’re identifying general artery disease. By managing it, you can lower the patient’s risk of heart attack or stroke.”

However, officials with Kishwaukee Hospital said patients aren’t seeking the simple test anymore.

“We’ve seen a dramatic decline in this screening post COVID,” said Kim Waterman, a spokesperson for the Northwestern Medicine health system.

Waterman said Kishwaukee and Valley West hospitals averaged about 13 patient screenings per month before the pandemic. Now, current rates average 1.2 patients a month.

Berry said his patients often also are recommended to go through a cardio rehabilitation program, where walking exercises can improve their prognosis. More severe cases may require surgery in some instances.

For those on the fence about returning to a hospital environment in the pandemic era, Saghir said patients should rest assured that area health care providers are maintaining a safe environment. He said screenings are paramount to overall long-term health.

“It is OK to come to the hospital and get screens,” Saghir said.

As a health care worker herself, DeBall said she understands life can get in the way of routine health checkups. For her, the return to screenings was worth it.

“I am so glad that I had gone ahead and just got myself back going again on my normal routine,” she said. “It’s just so important for yourself. It’s so easy to get so busy with life that you forget about those normal screenings.”

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.