Data shows concerning drop in women’s health checks

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

2/09/2020 4:42:23 PM

To help raise awareness about important health checks, the RACGP has partnered with Jean Hailes for Women’s Health Week.

GP speaking with a female patient.
MBS data shows a decline of more than 26% in female attendance from March to June for the most common GP item number 23.

As measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 started to be implemented in March, data shows a concerning drop in GP visits and pathology testing, including important women’s health checks.
According to MBS data, the number of face-to-face GP attendances for women from March to June fell by almost 24% compared to the same period last year.
During that same period, there was a 26% decline in female attendances for the most common GP item number (23), and a near 14% decrease in select women’s health MBS services.
To help raise awareness among women to see their GPs, the RACGP has partnered with Jean Hailes for the upcoming Women’s Health Week.
Running from 7–11 September, the college is asking women and GPs to use the week to review and schedule any health checks that may have been missed over the past months.
Dr Lara Roeske, GP and Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests network who also has a special interest in women’s health, said GPs have noted the drop off in patients during the pandemic and are ‘very concerned’.
‘The problem is widespread – we’re seeing it across all genders and cultural backgrounds and it has serious implications,’ she said.
‘The last thing we want is patients delaying important medical care and health problems becoming worse.’
When it comes to women’s health, Dr Roeske has particular concerns around missed appointments, especially for pregnant women who need regular health checks to ensure the health and wellbeing of both mother and child.
While a number of telehealth items have been created for women’s health, including for pregnancy support, there was an overall decrease of 4% in March to June, compared to services provided at the same time in 2019.
A decline in attendance is also noted in data provided by Pathology Awareness Australia.
In April, national trends show cervical cancer screening rates fell by 67%. While there was a slight improvement in May, presentations were still down by 49% compared to pre-COVID data.
In Victoria, where stringent COVID measures are still in place, cervical cancer screening for the week of 10 August was down by 38%.
John Crothers, Chair of Pathology Awareness Australia, told newsGP women’s attendance is critical for early detection of the human papillomavirus.
‘We know there has been around a 40% drop in pathology testing during the first lockdown – but cervical screening tests dropped even lower than that, and in Victoria there is still a concerning reduction,’ he said.
‘The opportunity to prevent cancer, or detect cancers at an earlier stage, gives the best chance of a positive outcome.
‘It is therefore important that this lifesaving test isn’t delayed or forgotten about because of COVID-19 containment measures.’
Mr Crothers also raised concern over lower cancer detection rates across the board in recent months as a result of ‘less people engaging with health services’.
‘This presents an enormous risk of late-stage diagnoses, and increased morbidity and mortality down the track,’ he said.
‘It is vital that anyone with an ongoing condition, new symptoms, or who is due for a screening test comes forward to get the care they need, please don’t wait.’
Dr Roeske urged women to put their health first.
‘We know that women can tend to put the needs of their loved ones before themselves – on top of that many have faced additional stress, anxiety and financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic,’ she said.
‘For those who may have missed a scheduled health check in the past months, Women’s Health Week serves as a valuable reminder – call your GP and book that appointment today.’

GP Dr Lara Roeske is urging women to put their health first.
Held annually in September, the theme of Women’s Health Week 2020 is ‘health checks’.
First held in 2013, each year thousands of women take part in events and online activities to learn more about their health.    
Janet Michelmore, Acting CEO and Patron of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, said the organisation is pleased to be partnering with the RACGP for the health awareness campaign.
‘Health checks are such an important part of disease prevention and not only help you stay healthy, but can improve your overall health and wellbeing,’ she said.
‘It’s important for women and their GPs to have access to the same practical and easy-to-understand health information. So we encourage everyone to sign up to the week to receive five days of free evidence-based health articles, videos, quizzes and tools.’
Dr Roeske agrees.
She stressed that women should know their GP is there for them and more accessible than ever.
‘The overwhelming majority of GPs are offering telehealth appointments and it’s safe to visit your clinic if you need to go in-person,’ Dr Roeske said.
‘General practices have implemented a range of infection prevention and control measures for patient and staff safety – so there is no need to delay.
‘My message to women across Australia is this: even in the most difficult times, it’s important to take care of your own health and wellbeing.’
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