Physiotherapists, chiropractors and podiatrists have urged patients to keep their health-care appointments, following a sharp increase in cancellations.
They believe patients are uncertain if allied health is an essential medical service under current COVID-19 restrictions, and they fear the long-term consequences of that confusion.
Chief Executive Officer of Allied Health Professions Australia, Claire Hewat, says the terminology used by government officials has led the public to cancel potentially vital appointments.
“The messaging [from the government] is that you are allowed to attend medical appointments,” she said.
“Unfortunately, most people think medical means only doctors, dentists and hospitals.”
“They don’t necessarily understand that the government’s definition of medical is everything to do with health – including allied health services.
“There is a lot of confusion, particularly around services like physiotherapy, because it was announced that things like massage clinics, gyms and those kinds of places, had to close down. But… it said if you are a health professional, you can continue [to operate]. That hasn’t necessarily connected through.”
While there are currently no official figures showing the drop-off in patient numbers, reports are industry-wide.
National President of the Australian Chiropractors’ Association Dr Anthony Coxon, says it is fair to assume that services, particularly hands-on health services, are seeing a decrease of as much as 50 per cent.
“It varies from practice to practice but I suspect somewhere between 20 to 50 per cent, and for some, perhaps a whole lot more.”
Mr Coxon said it was important to remember that allied health services are “considered an essential service”.
Operating clinics are “implementing the strictest hygiene, social distancing and screening protocols [that] we can”.
Physiotherapist Yves Silveira runs a clinic in Alexandria, and said many patients may not immediately see the side-effects of missing appointments. Ultimately, it could place a greater strain on the health system.
“Allied health services play a vital role in helping the healthcare system by dealing with issues that are nasty, but not an emergency, [such as] acute back pain and neck pain,” he said. “If we weren’t here, there would be clients who would go to emergency rooms and GPs.”
Mr Silveira encourages patients to “listen to their body” and not discount any pains or illness because “the longer you leave it the harder it is to resolve”.
In a bid to alleviate patients’ concerns, many practitioners are embracing telehealth services.
“I still believe in this current climate, where people are taking every precaution [that] telehealth is a great opportunity to get the right information to help you resolve things.”
Telehealth or telemedicine consultations occur over phone or video conferencing platforms. Under new government funding measures, these are currently bulk-billed.
For those sceptical of the effectiveness of telehealth services, Claire Hewat said it was important for patients to trust their provider.
“Physios, osteopaths, anyone using telehealth – these are professionals,” she said.
“They are not going to provide services via telehealth that are not appropriate. They will only provide services… they know will work.”
— Emily Kowal @KowalEmily