How fear of COVID-19 is putting Aussie patients at risk
Exclusive: Cancer, heart disease and diabetes are going undiagnosed as Australians fearful of COVID-19 avoid their doctor and worryingly those most at risk are not using new telehealth solutions.
Cancer diagnoses fell by 20 per cent in April as people stopped visiting their doctor and cancer screening services were closed, Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre's Professor Grant McArthur told News Corp.
Medical consultations and pathology tests have plummeted by 50 per cent since the COVID-19 outbreak began, he said.
"We are really concerned that diagnosis is being delayed and there are risks if diagnosis is delayed for months," he said.
While some cancers like prostate cancer were slow growing, in lung cancer a delayed diagnosis could be very risky, he said.
There are fears the death toll from delayed cancer diagnoses could exceed the death toll from COVID-19, unless people started seeing their doctors again, he said.
"Modelling coming out of the UK suggests there will be excess deaths from cancer if diagnosis is delayed for months," he said.
Delayed diagnosis could also create a health system bottle neck down the track if there was a flood of patients all requiring cancer surgery and treatment at the same time, he said.
"Small cell lung cancer, lymphoma and leukaemia are cancers where early treatment is vital," said Dr Christopher Steer the president of Private Cancer Physicians Australia.
"Presenting with a bowel obstruction because you left it too long to get diagnosed will lead to a worse outcome," he said.
Cancer specialists have set up a COVID-19 task force and are calling for breast screening programs to be reopened and are urging people to use new telehealth systems to contact their doctor if they have a health problem.
Since new telehealth rebates were introduced on 13 March 2020 (until end of Tuesday 21 April 2020), there have been over 5.2 million services delivered to a total of more than 3.6 million patients by 63,808 providers.
However, new data from online medical appointment firm HealthEngine shows older members of the community whose health is most likely to be at risk are not using them.
Just 12 per cent of all telehealth appointments made through HealthEngine were for Baby Boomers while Millennials (42 per cent ) and Gen X (24.5 per cent) were most likely to take advantage of phone consults with their doctor.
Australian Medical Association spokesman Dr Chris Moy said many older people could not handle the technology to book a telehealth appointment and some had been severely let down by medical practices that had shut their doors to only provide telehealth consultations.
He said he had to take over a cancer diagnosis of a patient from one medical clinic that had closed its doors and before the patient could get an X-ray to diagnose their cancer - the patient had to get a COVID-19 test to prove he was not infected, Dr Moy said.
HealthEngine CEO Marcus Tan confirmed there had been a 30-50 per cent drop off in GP attendances "which threatens GP viability," he said.
His data shows around 80 per cent of telehealth consultations are taking place over the phone while around one in five are done using video consultation platforms.
Dr Moy and Dr Tan share concerns telehealth is being abused by some medical practitioners.
Some practices had set up only offering telehealth consultations when there were some diagnoses that require a physical examination by a doctor and they had no way of providing this care, he said.
Dr Tan said there was a risk some unscrupulous doctors may be calling patients to pass the time of day and billing this to Medicare as a consultation.
Originally published as How fear of COVID-19 is putting Aussie patients at risk