GPs sound warning as checks plummet

As hospitals emptied their wards and clinics cancelled elective procedures and appointments in preparation for an anticipated wave of COVID-19 infections, we all held our collective breath and waited.

We waited for the worst and, thank goodness, the worst never came. Rapid government action, geography, wealth, space and cooperation all played their part in saving Australia from the pandemic horrors experienced overseas.

We have avoided the first wave of coronavirus infections but doctors are now bracing for an entirely different wave of sickness.

So many of us have been relieved to put off a frightening appointment with a specialist to see about that mole, explore that ache in the arm, or the regular discomfort of a breast examination or prostate check. A clean bill of health is as simple as not seeing the doctor, if you don’t think too hard about it. No news is good news, right?

But we all know better. In so many cases, the sooner the diagnosis, the better the prognosis.

Now, doctors are warning that Australia’s world-class screening regimen has fallen off a cliff.

The Prostate Cancer Foundation’s Jeff Dunn, who spoke to the ABC, said that compared to a year ago there had been a 60 per cent decline in blood tests to detect prostate cancer, a condition that affects one in seven men by the age of 85.

“We are alarmed that thousands of Australian men are foregoing, or completely avoiding in some cases, recommended tests to monitor and treat prostate cancer,” Professor Dunn said.

And who can blame them? It’s a rare person who’s unruffled by a trip to the clinic. But cancer waits for no man and the numbers are sobering.

Women fared worse. Australia’s major pathology labs said cervical cancer screening tests were down 71 per cent, while BreastScreen Australia temporarily paused screening in April and numbers have yet to bounce back.

Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia CEO Debra Graves said testing needed to ramp up and surpass the normal rate to make up for lost time.

“We’re seeing lower diagnoses in relation to the lower testing at the moment, but as we rebound we will see more diagnoses and it might be later in the course of the disease,” Dr Graves told The Age.

Cancer Council CEO Sanchia Aranda, also speaking to the ABC, said as many as one in 10 people may have put off cancer screening during the pandemic.

“If it is one in 10 people who delayed [tests] by up to six months, that’s about 7000 cancers that would be diagnosed potentially later,” she said.

Dr Harry Nespolon, president of the Royal Australian College of GPs, warned that patients with chronic medical problems needed to have regular checks to make sure they were going well. “Waiting until COVID-19 ends might mean they actually get really quite sick before then and might even end up in hospital,” he said.

“Those problems need to be sorted out now because, if they do wait for a very long time, it may go from being a treatable condition to an untreatable condition.”

Meanwhile, there was a 30 per cent drop in triple-0 calls for chest pains in the first weeks of April, and fewer emergency cardiac procedures, reported Alfred Health’s Dion Stub in the Medical Journal of Australia

“Maybe patients are less active, but there is no obvious reason why heart attack numbers should be down, apart from the real possibility that patients are avoiding coming to hospital, they are not seeing their cardiologist and they are potentially afraid even to see their GPs,” Associate Professor Stub said.

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Written by Rebecca Tolan

Rebecca has worked in journalism for 20 years, been a DIY-er for more, and is in the middle of her very own grand design. Retirement seems a long way off! In her spare time she rows surfboats, plays volleyball with her kids and dreams of future holidays.

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