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COVID-19 Australia

Like much of the world, Australians have been in some form of lockdown due to COVID-19 for around three months. We’ve had a range of subsidized telehealth services available for most of that time yet I haven’t had a single telehealth appointment during that period, despite having multiple chronic health issues. However, my husband has had a rheumatologist appointment over the phone and my mum has been doing physio (physical therapy) appointments via Zoom. (She’s 86, so I think that’s pretty cool.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against telehealth services; in fact, I think they are a great idea. I just haven’t needed to access any yet. Here’s why.

Fortunately, my conditions (including rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and type 2 diabetes) have been mostly stable over the last year. That means that I only need to see my rheumatologist every six months to get a repeat prescription for my current biologic (Humira). I’m not due to see him until August and I only need to see my endocrinologist once a year now, so I won’t see her until December. My ankylosing spondylitis has been another story, but I’ll get to that shortly.

I have, however, received a repeat prescription via a phone call to my GP clinic and the script was emailed to my pharmacy. I could have even had this home delivered if I’d asked for that. All at no cost to me except for the medication itself (which was subsidized by the government).

Leaving the House for Health Appointments

What I have been doing all this time is going to my health appointments in person. Ok, I can see some of you shrinking with fear at that idea from here and I completely understand. However, my situation might be different from yours and we all have to decide these things based on our individual circumstances.

Australia has thankfully had a very low COVID-19 infection rate compared to much of the rest of the world. That’s partly due to geography, partly to our smaller population, and partly to our state and federal governments locking the country down long before the virus had the chance to get out of control.

Although we’ve mostly maintained strict social distancing and sanitizing practices, we haven’t had to deal with having the virus spreading in epic proportions around us. The fear factor is there, especially among people with chronic illness, but the scale is much lower than in other countries.

Because of all this, I’ve felt comfortable enough to leave my house (where I’ve otherwise been self-isolating as much as possible) and head out to my medical appointments. These have included blood tests, physiotherapy and chiropractic sessions and appointments with my general practitioner (GP), my ophthalmic surgeon, and my musculoskeletal physician.

All of these health professionals happen to work in small clinics so, with fewer patients allowed in at a time, the waiting rooms were often empty. Of course, they were all following new strict health and safety standards and they have always been very professional in this area anyway, but I was reassured by having the option of telehealth if I needed it.

Most of the appointments I have attended have been related to my ankylosing spondylitis and spondylolisthesis. For the first few months of the lockdown, I managed to do some exercise at home most days. However, I’ve been less disciplined about that over the last month or so. As a result, my back pain and sciatica began getting worse. Once I realized what was happening, I started to do some daily exercises again. Hopefully, a cortisone injection in my right sacroiliac joint this week will help me get back on track.

I’m Still Avoiding Group Exercise Classes

There are some things I haven’t been able to attend yet, though. My weekly hatha yoga classes stopped in March and, although they are about to resume, I’m not sure I’m comfortable being in a group class yet, (even if the government does approve of gatherings of groups our size). I’ll probably hold off on joining that as there has been a recent spike in infection rates in my state (Victoria). I would like to see that come right back down before I even consider joining that class. In the meantime, I’ll stick to weekly chair yoga classes via Zoom.

I was also supposed to join a prescribed exercise class and a hydrotherapy class soon. Like the yoga class, the prescribed exercise class may resume soon, but I may wait that one out for a while. As for the hydrotherapy class, even if it does resume within a few months, I doubt I’ll be comfortable going for many months yet.

Though community transmission rates in Australia have been extremely low, they have started to increase rapidly in my state in recent days. If they continue to increase, I may start to use telehealth services and stay home even more.

Other Health Activities I’ve Been Doing Online

One of the big positives to come from this lockdown for me (and many others) is our increased ability to connect with others via videoconferencing. My arthritis support group switched our monthly meetings to Zoom and this has allowed more members to join. We will probably continue with regular Zoom meetings from now on even though our face-to-face meetings are slowly restarting with restricted numbers.

I’ve also been participating in more health advocacy meetings as a patient representative than ever before (mostly been related to COVID-19 policies).

I’ve even had the chance to participate in conferences that I might otherwise have struggled to attend in person. For example, arthritis patients around the world can access the recordings from this year’s EULAR (European League Against Rheumatism) Congress, which was run as a virtual event. All you need to do is register as an attendee by August 31, 2020 and you will have access to the sessions until September 1, 2020. Even better, patients can register for free (providing you upload a doctor’s letter confirming your diagnosis). I missed out on the live-streamed sessions, but I plan to view some of the recordings to increase my arthritis health knowledge while I have this opportunity.

I really hope access of this kind continues even when the rest of the world returns to “normal.”

How People Have Been Using Telehealth in Australia

You might wonder why I switched from discussing telehealth to discussing other online health activities. Don’t worry, there is method in my madness.

One series of webinars I’ve been following is being run by the Continuity of Care Collaboration (CCC). This is an Australian-first national communication collaboration of 32 industry and health care organizations that have come together to stress the importance for people to continue monitoring their health and maintaining their regular medical care.

The group formed amid “mounting concerns that Australians are not maintaining their regular doctor visits for existing chronic conditions and/or putting off seeing their doctor to get a test, investigation, or immunisation due to fears of contracting COVID-19 or burdening the health system.”

The CCC shared the results of a survey they had conducted over four weeks during May and June and the results were alarming.

  • 52 percent of respondents had delayed or avoided a medical appointment
  • 41 percent of respondents had a wide range of health conditions and/or multiple health conditions
  • 28 percent found telehealth could be difficult to use due to technology or access to internet/phone
  • 23 percent were worried they could be breaching lockdown rules to attend a non-COVID-19 health appointment

What results like this tell me is that, though the uptake of telehealth services in Australia has been reasonably high, it must continue to be available to people like me with chronic health conditions. If anything, these services must improve and expand.

At this stage, the new telehealth services are only going to be subsidized by the government until September 1. After that, the fees could potentially be a huge barrier for participation and many people may not seek the ongoing care they need.

Our conservative federal government has opened the purse-strings for health care and welfare services during this pandemic and the bushfire crisis that proceeded it here, but it is currently looking like they’ve reached their limit and will cease funding many of the emergency initiatives that were implemented.

As someone who relies heavily on our health care system, I really want our telehealth services and other new health and welfare initiatives to become permanent. One thing I can do from home is to step up and advocate for them via things like signing petitions, joining online meetings, and sharing my voice through CreakyJoints Australia and my personal social media platforms.

All this goes to show that, even though I am mostly still staying at home, I’ve got a lot to keep me busy (as long as I have an internet connection).

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