There been a resurgence in visits to doctors after people initially delayed their care because of COVID-19 restrictions and fears about infection risk, new figures show.
But while more people overall are seeking medical care, there are still some vulnerable groups such as those in financial stress or mental distress who are avoiding needed healthcare, according to survey results released by the Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research, University of Melbourne.
The findings come from the third wave of a national survey of 1200 adults, which showed that the proportion reporting that they had consulted a health professional when they needed to rose from 39% in June to 44% in August.
The increase was driven mostly by increased healthcare visits for women and especially those over 65, in whom 67% said they had seen a healthcare professional in the last month.
“The increased use of health professionals may reflect that people are catching up on services that they had previously delayed or avoided in April and May. But it is unclear what will happen once the backlog is cleared,” the report authors said.
“This may also reflect people being more willing to look after their health as the pandemic continues longer than many expected.”
They noted that healthcare use by men remained lower and little changed, particularly for younger men in who only a third reported seeing a health professional when they needed to in the past month.
There were also high rates of avoiding healthcare for people who were financially stressed, who were much more likely to forgo needed health care (32.8%) than those making ends meet (14.8%) and those who are financially comfortable (6.3%) in August.
Similarly, people with high mental distress were six times more likely to avoid needed health care than those without mental distress.
Use of telehealth remained unchanged, with 11% of respondents said they used it to consult a healthcare professional in August, compared to around a third of respondents who said they had a face-to-face consultation.
The use of telehealth was highest in states with the greatest restrictions – namely Victoria and NSW, while all the other states saw a decline in telehealth use in August.
“This suggests that the use of telehealth is associated with the geographic distribution of COVID-19 cases across Australia, and implies that its use may fall once the pandemic is over,” the report authors said.
They warned that the avoidance of needed healthcare by the groups with high need will be cause for concern if it persists.
“This will have a long-lasting cumulative impact on people and on the health system if these trends persist, widening inequalities in income and health in Australia. People will present with more serious conditions that will increase costs in the longer term. This will increase the prevalence of conditions that are potentially preventable.
They said use of telehealth needs to be evaluated to help inform decision son if and how it should be continued after the pandemic is over.
“The issue is that the use of telephone consultations still dominates the use of video consultations and little is known about what modality is most appropriate for different patients,” they wrote.
“Where used appropriately, and in the context of continuity of care, the use of telehealth is very convenient to patients who are less mobile and find it difficult to travel. It would also reduce the need to take time off work to visit a doctor, which might be particularly important in the recession to help maintain productivity.
“Telehealth may therefore increase access for those with chronic conditions whilst helping to maintain productivity during the recession.”