Concern for Australians missing vital GP visits
Data from the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) reveals that tens of thousands of Australians with chronic diseases are putting themselves at risk by missing vital visits to their GP. Potentially life-saving cholesterol tests to manage and prevent heart disease are also being skipped.
The MBS data revealed a 10% drop in GP visits for the management of chronic disease in March 2020, equating to 96,000 fewer visits compared with the same time last year.
NSW pathology data revealed a 28% drop in cholesterol tests being processed in March compared with February 2020.
The Heart Foundation’s Chief Medical Adviser, cardiologist Professor Garry Jennings, said the data also showed an 18% drop in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health checks in March 2020 compared with the same time last year.
“These are potentially life-saving check-ups, tests and monitoring that people are missing out on,” Professor Jennings said.
“We know that nearly one in two Australians live with one or more chronic conditions and more than four million of these people live with cardiovascular disease.
“A doubling of the number of calls to our helpline compared to the same time last year tells us that many Australians living with heart disease are worried about their risk of COVID-19 complications, especially as restrictions ease.
“Our message is very clear — it is vital that you continue to monitor your heart health and maintain your regular medical care, and there are options for you to do this safely via telehealth or in person.
“What we don’t want to see is a stalling of the progress we have made in Australia in reducing preventable deaths caused by chronic diseases.”
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) President Dr Harry Nespolon said the new data was concerning and urged patients not to put off important medical appointments and tests.
“It’s never been easier to access your GP — with consultations now available by telephone or videoconferencing, as well as in person. For most people, a phone or video consultation with their GP will be suitable, but for those patients who still need to see their GP in person, we’re reminding them that it is safe to do so given the infection control processes in place,” Dr Nespolon said.
Professor Jennings said the drop in lipid tests, including for LDL and HDL cholesterol, were particularly concerning as cholesterol needs to be routinely measured.
“There are rarely any signs or symptoms attributed to changes in cholesterol levels, yet left undetected and untreated, these changes can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.”
Professor Jennings said that while the MBS data showed GPs had claimed more than one million telehealth items in March 2020, only a small proportion of GP visits for the management of chronic disease were delivered via telehealth.
“It’s reassuring to see that telehealth has been taken up by a higher proportion of older Australians, aligning well with the group of people we know are more likely to have multiple chronic conditions and be at higher risk of COVID-19 complications.
“But we want to see people at risk of or living with heart disease continue to see their GP about managing their condition, whether it be by telehealth or if needed, face to face.”
The MBS data showed an increase in shorter GP visits of less than 20 minutes compared with the same time last year, which is likely a reflection of increased flu vaccinations.
Telehealth has helped slightly bridge the gap for longer GP consults of more than 20 minutes, which saw a 9% drop compared with March 2019.
The Heart Foundation is one of 22 organisations coming together in the Continuity of Care Collaboration (CCC) — an Australian-first collaboration of peak bodies, industry and healthcare organisations reinforcing the importance for people to continue to maintain their regular medical care.
The group formed due to mounting concerns that Australians are delaying or not maintaining their regular doctor visits for existing chronic conditions due to fears of contracting COVID-19 or burdening the health system.
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