Threat to health from missed appointments during COVID-19 pandemic

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Doctors are concerned the coronavirus pandemic may have a hidden cost – the long term health of Australians, especially when it comes to cancer.

After months of quarantine lockdown and social distancing, cancer specialists have seen a decline in the number of patients turning up for regular check-ups and screening.

Dr Sanjeev Kumar is an oncologist specialising in breast cancer treatment at Sydney’s comprehensive cancer hospital, the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse.

He said in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, general health was a concern.

“I am worried,” Dr Kumar said.

“Hospitals in general have been quieter, patients are not presenting as much to their GP for regular checks.

“Most of my patients are referred to me after seeing their GP, so if people are not seeing their normal health practitioner, that is a concern.”

To help reach patients during the COVID-19 lockdown, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse introduced the Attend Anywhere telehealth system and according to Dr Kumar, it had proved to be invaluable.

“During this time, I’ve used telehealth for probably 80 percent of my patients,” he said.

“I have preferred to see new patients face-to-face – I find it easier to gain a rapport with them that way – and then follow up via telehealth.

“With the Attend Anywhere system, patients were sent a link and they were able to log in from home.

“It has a virtual waiting room, so patients could see where I was at in my schedule; for example, I could send them a message to say, ‘hey I’m running a bit late, make a coffee and then log in again in 15 minutes’.

“We had an IT person roaming around, so if there were any problems with logging in or video or anything, they would come and fix it.

“So it was made very easy for us and it worked beautifully.

“However, I will say that with some of my older patients, they didn’t engage with it as much and I did do some phone consultation, but that’s not really ideal.

“A lot of my older patients I continued to see face-to-face.”

Growing up in Canowindra in western NSW, Dr Kumar said the continued improvements in telehealth had great implications for patients in rural and regional areas.

“I’ve seen the ‘health vs distance’ battle up close, and in recent years the ability of regional hospitals to access specialists for people in those areas has improved,” he said.

“But even in Sydney, I see people from the outer west or from the Shire and the ease of telehealth for them has been great and for some of those patients, we’ve agreed to continue consultations via telehealth, if their treatment is not scheduled for that same day.

“I think that, effectively, this is a turning point.

“We need to see a more widespread, effective telehealth program and that’s maybe where government can step in and assist.”

Dr Kumar said in some ways, it was “a little frustrating” that it had taken a global pandemic to accelerate the use of telehealth in Australia.

“But to be honest, I’ve also never really realised how effective telehealth could be either,” he said.

“And now, having engaged with that process, I can see how effective it is and from a patient perspective as well, that’s got to be a good thing.”

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