Doctor groups have expressed alarm at a drop-off in consultations, while pharmacists are providing the in-person component of services such as vaccination
With the rapid growth in the use of telehealth due to COVID-19, some doctors are issuing scripts for NIP vaccines which are then administered in pharmacy, says Pharmacy Guild Victorian branch president Anthony Tassone.
The AMA issued a statement this week urging Australians not to let the COVID-19 pandemic prevent them from taking steps to maintain their everyday health, highlighting vaccination and chronic disease as serious worries.
“The AMA is very concerned that some Australians are putting off seeing their doctor or getting a test, investigation, or immunisation due to fears of contracting COVID-19,” said national president Dr Tony Bartone.
“It is clear that people are putting off seeing their doctor, or not going at all,” Dr Bartone said.
“We are already seeing particular concerning significant reductions in investigative diagnostic tests, including skin cancer biopsies and cervical cytological screening.
“Social distancing is really important, but a visit to the doctor must remain an essential part of our everyday lives.
“The COVID-19 fear is understandable, but for some people it could mean that a medical condition like cancer or heart disease will go undetected.
“The consequences of not seeing your doctor for usual care could be life-threatening for many patients,” he told the general public.
“The failure to be able to monitor patients with existing conditions could lead to their conditions getting much worse.
“Type 2 Diabetes, for example, is easily manageable in general practice. But if it is left untreated, it can lead to weight gain, worsening eyesight, circulatory issues, and ultimately could result in blindness or amputation.
“Failure to get children immunised may mean they pay a heavy price down the track by being left exposed to horrible diseases like measles.”
Meanwhile RACGP national president Dr Harry Nespolon said that some patients were avoiding consultations at a distance because they were not comfortable using technology such as video conferencing.
“The reason the RACGP has been pushing so hard for subsidised telephone consultations is that it is a technology that everyone has and will help limit the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s important to emphasise to all patients that the MBS item does apply for telephone consultations, not just Skype, Zoom and FaceTime and the like.
“It’s important that this doesn’t change and that people realise that telehealth and telephone consultations actually make it easier for patients to access their GP and get the same quality care for a wide range of concerns.”
Anthony Tassone, president of the Pharmacy Guild’s Victorian branch, said that it was important for Australians to have access to continuity of care, which meant seeing doctors where appropriate.
However, particularly when it comes to services which can only be offered in-person, like vaccination, pharmacy is playing a key role in reducing strain on the health system, he said.
“The AMA calls for patients who need a vaccination to ‘see a doctor’,” he said. “This simply may not be possible in all circumstances if a doctor is not practising at their general practice and delivering care via telehealth. Telehealth can be very useful – but it can’t deliver a vaccination.
“There are reports that community pharmacies have already administered more flu vaccinations in 2020 to date than the entire winter of 2019, in what was considered a ‘bad flu season’.
“This is testament to the ever growing acceptance and satisfaction the public has for pharmacist delivered immunisations and the fact that community pharmacies continue to ‘turn up’ and deliver care the best they can.
“The Guild has already received reports from some of our members of general practices arranging for vaccines subsidised by the National Immunisation Program to be handed to patients to take to a pharmacy to have administered.
“If there are cases of general practices who do not have anybody actually present to administer government subsidised vaccinations – we must find a way of how these can be re-allocated to another nearby general practice or pharmacy who is able to deliver this service for patients to avoid any wastage and meet the significant demand we are currently facing.”
Mr Tassone said that if patients are not feeling well, it is still important that they consult a health care professional.
“Depending on the nature of their concern this may be a doctor or it may be another such as a community pharmacist, with community pharmacies being the most visited and accessible primary healthcare destination in Australia,” he said.
“Public health emergency orders at the state level and extended continued dispensing provisions at the federal level to allow pharmacists to supply schedule 4 medicines to patients who are unable to obtain a prescriptions are all steps in the right direction and help assure safe and appropriate access for patients.
“Right now, our healthcare system is being tested like it has never been before. There will be no shortage of sickness or patients needing help this winter.
“We can all be part of the solution and together as a team deliver the best care for patients – but that can only happen where we recognise and best utilise the skills and full scope of practice of all of our health professional team.”