Coordinating care among different specialties could help patients with many problems and no proved therapies

By Melba Newsome

Since testing positive for COVID on December 10, 2020, 47-year-old Sherry Flynn of Goldsboro, N.C., has been plagued by a long list of ailments, including severe fatigue, blood clots, chronic headaches, rapid heart rate, general body pain, trouble with thinking and remembering, and type 2 diabetes. And she has accumulated a shelf filled with prescription medicines. About two months post-diagnosis, Flynn’s primary care physician referred her to a recently opened facility: the COVID Recovery Clinic at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) School of Medicine. “She said, ‘I can treat you for all your symptoms, but I believe they could maybe find other ways to help you to rehabilitate yourself instead of just putting you on all these medications,’” Flynn says.

The clinic sees many such patients, commonly known as long haulers. On a Tuesday afternoon in May, eight of them arrived at the facility to see a team of therapists and physicians. Like Flynn, each patient hoped to find, if not a cure, at least a reprieve from the myriad symptoms that had afflicted them for months in the wake of their COVID diagnosis. Over three to four hours, these people went through an exhaustive medical workup by a variety of specialists. A rehabilitation physician, an internist, a psychiatrist, a neuropsychologist, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist cycled through each patient’s exam room to assess their condition. “It’s a big effort for them to come for half a day, and we want to make sure it’s worth their while,” says the clinic’s co-director John Baratta, who developed this multidisciplinary approach.

Baratta believes coordinated care among these specialists offers the best chance to put patients on the path to recovery. Such coordination treats the whole patient instead of dealing with each symptom as its own ailment. Similar clinics have been opening across the U.S., as doctors search for the best ways to treat a new, perplexing and multifaceted ailment with no proved therapies. Clinic managers are concerned, however, that few people of color are being referred to these facilities.

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