Doctors say New Zealanders are delaying seeking help for serious medical issues because of Covid-19 fears.
Emergency departments and GP clinics across the country are seeing a dramatic decline in patient numbers, and people are often much sicker by the time they get to the doctors.
Doctors say they're desperate to get the message across that New Zealanders needing medical help can still be treated safely.
Lower Hutt GP Dr Joel Howe says he’s seen plenty of cases that have been left too late since the lockdown started, from fractures, to abscesses.
“I had a four-year-old child coming in with an abscess on the knee. I had a 13-year-old coming in crying because of an ear infection that’s been neglected,” he said.
“He was in so much pain, eventually the patient had to be seen at the hospital and looked after by two different specialists.”
Dr Howe says he believes patients are avoiding going to the doctor because of fears they’ll catch Covid-19 while getting treatment.
“A lot of the avoidance has been due to fear, fear that coming to see your GP could predispose you to higher risk of getting the infection. All of that is not true.”
He says he’s also had patients coming in late after putting up with fractures for much longer than they should have. One patient walked around for days with a nail in their foot.
“Doctors want you not to put it off because delaying a neglected fracture for four weeks of lockdown is harder to treat. Delaying a ruptured appendicitis or a melanoma can kill.”
Hospital emergency departments are seeing the same pattern, in Christchurch, patient numbers are down by 40 per cent since the lockdown started, Wellington Hospital's seen a 50 per cent drop, and so have hospitals run by the Auckland DHB.
Auckland DHB’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Margaret Wilsher says the lack of sports and vehicle related injuries accounts for some of the drop-in patient numbers, but definitely not all.
“Usually at this time of year we'd have older people with complex medical conditions, chest pain, heart failure, pneumonia, chronic medical conditions that get worse over time and we're simply not seeing as many as we'd expect,” she said.
“We know that our older people are very stoic and will stay away, they have stayed away previously when we have been busy at times of industrial unrest and healthcare worker strikes, so we particularly appeal to them that if they need to come, please come”
“I suspect older people feel a bit more vulnerable in light of the statistics around Covid-19, but they will be safe and we will protect them here.”
Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says the government is now putting more emphasis on the message people should still go to the doctors or hospital if they need to.
“We have seen the reports about ED attendance being down. As soon as we got a hint this was happening over a week ago, we started to press it home,” he said.
He also wanted to emphasise that doctors are doing virtual consultations, and that wait times when calling Healthline are a thing of the past.
“There is capacity on Healthline to attend to everyone’s health needs. The wait time is tiny now, the median time to pick up a call is under 10 seconds so we need people to keep using Healthline.”
Dr Wilsher says it’s great that New Zealanders have taken the ‘stay at home’ message so seriously, but it might have caused confusion for some.
“The message about coming to hospital if you really need it I suspect has been lost a little bit, but we have an opportunity to right that.”
Dr Howe says his clinic, the High Street Health Hub in Lower Hutt, is taking “extreme” measures to keep the public safe, and he wants patients to come into the clinic or call to arrange a consultation if they’re feeling unwell.
“We glove when we examine a patient, we mask up to prevent ourselves coughing onto our patient. We change into scrubs and wash our scrubs daily. I bleach my lab coat every day. We bleach our clinic, we bleach all our surfaces. The public cannot fathom the extremes clinics take to keep them safe.”
He says if this trend continues, he worries about what state some patients will be in several months from now.
“The pandemic will eventually pass. But depression, suicide, cancer, heart disease and diabetes will not pass,” he said.
“How much morbidity and complications will we tolerate before we realise it’s not just Covid-19 that's going to kill the patient?”