Delays to diagnosis and treatment may lead to rise in preventable deaths, says AHHA
Delays in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses during COVID-19 may lead to a rise in preventable deaths in Australia, warns the Chief Executive of Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association (AHHA), Alison Verhoeven.
Some elective procedures and prevention activities, such as cancer screening, have been placed on hold — or become delayed — throughout the pandemic. This has served to reduce virus exposure among potentially immuno-compromised patients, and to free up medical resources for the COVID-19 response.
However, Verhoeven is concerned that these delays may do more harm than good in terms of overall health outcomes.
“It is hard to tell without long-term, quantitative data, but based on early reports, these delays in screening and care may potentially have a negative impact on national health,” Verhoeven said.
“Properly catering to acute healthcare needs during COVID-19 will of course take immediate priority, but we will need to be prepared to manage patients with potentially more advanced diseases when health services return to more normal operations.”
After the temporary suspension of state-run BreastScreen services, many women are now also opting to defer their own screening out of concerns about COVID-19 exposure. With 150,000 breast cancer diagnoses annually, this may have a profound impact, with early intervention crucial for prognosis.
Similarly, deferrals in prostate cancer screening or treatment may significantly increase the fatality rate of the disease. Early localised (stage 1) or locally advanced (stage 2) prostate cancers have a fatality rate of just 5%. With metastatic prostate cancers (stage 3), the fatality rate is 69%.
With the introduction of bulk-billable telehealth, Verhoeven is less concerned about an increase in deaths among illnesses with overt symptoms. She believes the added convenience of telehealth appointments will prompt more people to get their symptoms checked.
“Since telehealth became bulk-billable there has been a huge surge in GP consultations throughout Australia, which could suggest that people are more inclined to get symptoms checked, with the added convenience telehealth brings. If so, this could actually have a positive effect on the fatality rates of certain illnesses,” she said.
“I am still very concerned about cancers and other illnesses with more insidious symptoms, though. Screening programs are really important to identify and treat these in a timely manner,” she added.
Looking to the future, Verhoeven would like to see bulk-billable telehealth become a permanent fixture of the healthcare system.
“We don’t yet know whether the surge in telehealth reflects a change in attitude towards GP consultations or an increase in ill health. But based on qualitative reports so far, it seems to be incentivising people to seek care when they have health concerns, which is certainly a positive development for our health overall,” she concluded.
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