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Fears of post-pandemic ‘tsunami of health problems’


Anastasia Tsirtsakis


14/05/2020 3:34:59 PM

General practice consultations and specialist check-ups for chronic disease remain down across the board amid coronavirus fear.

Cut-out people
As many as one in 10 people are estimated to have put off cancer screening since the pandemic started.

‘There’s going to be a tsunami of health problems – it keeps me up at night.’
 
That is Dr Maria Boulton, GP and a director of the Australian General Practice Alliance. She says coronavirus fears have deterred patients from visiting their doctor at all, despite precautionary measures being taken and the Federal Government’s introduction of telehealth.
 
‘I was talking to an oncologist friend of mine and he says that they’ve noticed a drop in new cancer diagnosis, which means that in a few months’ time we’ll get all these people with advanced cancers,’ she said.
 
‘It’s really scary.’
 
As many as 10% of patients are estimated to have put off cancer screening since the pandemic started, according to the ABC.
 
‘If it is one in 10 people who delayed [tests] by up to six months, that’s about 6000 cancers that would be diagnosed potentially later,’ Sanchia Aranda, CEO of the Cancer Council, said.
 
When it comes to diabetes, one major private pathology laboratory reports a 32% drop in tests compared to figures in February – stats that are representative of testing rates across Australia.
 
Diabetes Australia CEO Professor Greg Johnson expressed concern, highlighting that regular check-ups are essential for managing diabetes long-term.
 
‘Diabetes doesn’t stop during COVID-19,’ he said.
 
‘We are concerned that if people don’t have their pathology checks, or checks for their vision, foot problems, kidney function or other health checks, then serious problems could develop unnoticed.’
  
Meanwhile, the pathology sector across the board has seen a 40% drop in routine testing, indicating that more than 60,000 Australians are not getting the tests they need.  
 
Despite anxiety being at an all-time high – Beyond Blue reports a 40% increase in people accessing its services – contact with mental health professionals has fallen.
 
‘It’s very concerning that some people have been avoiding important medical appointments,’ RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon said.
 
‘The last thing we want is large numbers of health issues and worsening chronic conditions coming after this pandemic.
 
‘In these difficult times, people still need to take care of their health, keep up any regular appointments and tests, and see their GP for concerns.’
 
Dr Boulton believes the drop in patient check-ups is due to lack of community education early on in the pandemic, particularly regarding telehealth. 
 
‘We could have done more to tell people that you don’t need a fancy computer to do telehealth, you only need a phone; that we’re not too busy for them and that they need to stay in contact with their GPs,’ she said.
 
Dr Boulton is just one of many GPs to report that patients are avoiding important medical consultations and tests.
 
The RACGP responded last month by launching a nationwide campaign, Expert Advice Matters, which is designed to remind people that it is safe to see their GP and inform them of the options for both telehealth and face-to-face consultations.
 
‘The reason why we are running our campaign Expert Advice Matters is to encourage people to keep taking care of their health – we also want to remind everyone that general practice remains open and expert medical advice matters most,’ Dr Nespolon said.
 
‘General practice is the first port of call for people when it comes to their health and GPs play a unique role in treating patients with chronic conditions, in addition to treating a range of other conditions and providing preventive medical advice for the whole person.
 
‘It’s important that this doesn’t change and that people realise that it’s never been easier to access your GP – online, by phone or in person.’
 
Adding to efforts to keep Australians healthy, 15 health organisations have joined to form the Continuity of Care Collaboration (CCC) to stress the importance of people continuing to monitor their health and maintaining their regular medical care.
 
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