The health damage from COVID-19 extends far beyond people who have had the disease. It’s also reaching patients facing other serious medical issues, including heart disease and surgeries, who’ve stayed away from care.
The UC Davis Health Cardiac Rehabilitation Program has seen many patients become reluctant to visit the clinic amid COVID-19 fears. As a result, the condition of many patients has improved more slowly than hoped, while others went backward in their heart health.
That’s why program leaders are trying to reach cardiac patients to reassure them that when they reconnect with their health providers, the rehab clinic and all UC Davis Health facilities are extremely safe.
In addition, the rehab program had limited the slots available to patients to maintain ideal social distancing, so to reach more patients, they are about to launch a hybrid version of the program that will help patients rehabilitate partly at home with guidance.
“This is Cardiac Rehabilitation Week in the middle of Heart Health Month,” said Javier E. López, a UC Davis associate professor and the medical director of the cardiac and vascular rehab program. “We’re hoping that will help get our message out to patients who should connect, or reconnect, with us and their other providers so we can help them get back to better health.”
Resilient clinic adjusted to stay safe
UC Davis Health has had a cardiac rehab program since the 1990s, and was one of the first UC medical centers to launch one. The rehab clinic shut down during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 but reopened by summer with fewer patients to be sure every safety measure was effective.
But López and his team saw the nervousness of patients about returning. Even some with recent heart surgeries stayed away because they were unsure about the threat of COVID-19. Combined with the limited slots available because of COVID-19 precautions, the delays in urgent or preventative care have resulted in more serious heart problems when patients do come to the clinic.
— Javier López
“We’re seeing people who are a lot sicker when they come to us now,” López said. “They’re sitting at home for 3-4 months after a surgery instead of coming in as they usually would in 3-4 weeks. They’re very deconditioned and many have developed a number of complications. Plus, they often have some confusion about their medications.”
So, the rehab program has two messages it wants people to hear:
- Don’t wait to get care to improve your heart health.
- The clinic and everyone at UC Davis Health are experts at keeping you safe.
“Keeping patients safe is what we do every day. We’re very good at it,” López said. “We can see our planning, cleaning, masking and distancing are working.”
A complete approach to cardiac health
“One of the things that makes us special is that people can come to a single place to get all their support and to have their care coordinated,” López said. “We have an amazing team that works together to help patients recover and to prevent any second event.”
The cardiac rehab team includes cardiologists, nurses, dieticians, chronic disease educators, exercise physiologists and psychologists. Along with exercise to build their physical capabilities, patients get help with managing other issues including healthy eating, cholesterol levels, diabetes, anxiety and depression.
The team also screens to see what social or psychological issues may slow a patient’s recovery, helps patients who are overwhelmed by the medication regimens, and manages any referrals patients might need.
Expanding to include virtual rehab
Coming soon is a hybrid program where patients can do parts of their rehabilitation at home, with expert guidance.
Normally, the clinic has about 90 patients enrolled, but because of the distancing and safety measures, they are seeing about 40 right now.
“This hybrid virtual program is a game changer,” López said. “It will allow us to help many more people, despite COVID. We can have much earlier interventions for more patients than COVID has allowed.”
Plans for the hybrid program are in the last stages of being finalized and López said they expect to have patients splitting time between the clinic and guided rehab at home.
“We know this will help even more people,” López said. “Heart rehab is so important and the best part is that people feel better, they have fewer returns to the hospital, and they live longer.”