Yahoo News Australia's Life After Lockdown series investigates what life will be like after coronavirus restrictions.
While the coronavirus pandemic has pushed health into the spotlight, general practitioners (GPs) are seeing a significant drop in face-to-face consultations.
Dr Sumeena Qidwai, a GP based in the Sydney suburb of Rhodes and a clinical expert at telehealth provider Medinet Australia, says in light of the pandemic she has seen a drop in consultations by 30 per cent, with people not addressing their “minor” health issues.
“We’re probably seeing less of the flu and the common cold than we would normally see due to social distancing,” Dr Qidwai told Yahoo News Australia.
“But I think people are putting off their general and routine health checks – their pap smears or their blood tests or their diabetic checks.
“They’re saying they’re going to do it after COVID’s over, but that’s a little disappointing as GPs.
“We are the front line of primary care we would like to see those numbers increase.”
Some people may be avoiding their GP due to fear of getting infected, Dr Qidwai said all practices were clean and sterilised, and if you needed to see a doctor face-to-face it was safe to do so.
“None of us [doctors] are at work if we’re sick, we’re asking people who are sick with a fever or sore throat or cough to consult with us through telehealth, if it can be done,” she said.
Healthcare digitally adapts during pandemic
The pandemic forced many industries to adapt quickly to stay alive and the health industry was no exception. Dr Qidwai said she saw changes happen in the space of weeks, which under normal circumstances would take years.
In addition to seeing patients at her practice, she also offers consultations digitally through Medinet and other telehealth services.
Medinet offers telehealth services, which allows patients to contact a GP through an app. Medicare card holders are able to bulk bill their digital consultation, the fee is $30 for those not with Medicare.
All doctors on the platform are registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), as required by the Medical Board of Australia.
About half of consultations at Dr Qidwai’s practice are being done through telehealth and after hours she is available to her patients through Medinet, which enables her and other GPs to treat patients, offering a platform for people who are afraid to go see their doctor and people who are vulnerable or over 70.
From treating minor skin conditions, assessing sick children and mental health concerns, providing scripts, referrals or medical certificates if necessary, all of which can be done through digital platforms.
“We have had to adapt, but we are set up to provide really excellent telehealth now,” Dr Qidwai said.
“In one or two weeks, we’ve experienced a change in digital technology that we normally would have seen over five or 10 years.”
Telehealth could be the future, but won’t replace GPs
While it has been a huge change for doctors, Dr Qidwai recognises it is also a huge change for patients, however she urges people to utilise the service as it complements the face-to-face work GPs do.
“Even though I am the clinical expert at Medinet, I have never said Telehealth will replace your regular GP, that would just be ignorant,” she said.
The Australian Government dubbed telehealth services “key weapon in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic”, and are subsidised for all Australians until September 30, when arrangements will be reviews.
Dr Qidwai says the platforms provide “really good continuity of care” for patients and she believes Telehealth should be extended beyond the pandemic.
“Digital access to health services is really crucial, we’re in an era of technology,” she said.
“We have to implement digital access to health care services and we need to do it now.”
COVID-19 has created so much uncertainty, there’s no guarantee a vaccine will be ready any time soon, or if there is one, it will be safe, and there could be little outbreaks of the virus if social distancing restrictions ease.
In light of the pandemic, Dr Qidwai said it had been her “pleasure” to serve the community.
And during this time, she thinks the main thing that has changed is being more cautious as to which patients are coming into practices.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure for me to be there for my patients during this time, being that voice of reassurance and education,” she says.
“Yes, the technological change has been difficult to adapt to, however I think as with anything, change is inevitable.”
Dr Qidwai says doctors love their patients and she wants doctors to be able to continue doing their jobs safely, and telehealth has enabled them to do that.
“It’s not an ordinary job, we’re dealing with people’s lives,” she said.
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