A DROP in the number of people seeing their GP during the COVID-19 pandemic will likely lead to a wave of delayed diagnoses, doctors warn.
Hunter GPs have reported a 30 per cent decline in the number of people seeking preventative health care throughout the COVID-19 response.
With the temporary closure of cancer screening services and a drop in the number of routine pathology tests during the outbreak, many believe there will be a "spike" in health conditions down the track.
Dr Ben Seckold, of Hamilton Doctors, said patient numbers were beginning to pick up again, but even with telehealth measures and a separate, dedicated respiratory clinic, they had experienced a drop of about 30 per cent.
"A large portion of the decline is in preventative health, so I think you will see a spike in health conditions down the track," he said.
"A lot of general practice is trying to keep people well. For example, doing regular checks on elderly people to check on their heart failure or diabetes. If these people stop coming, they might get quite unwell later in the year.
"I think we are starting to see a turnaround now. But people were petrified to go out the front door, let alone go to the doctor.
"There are still people that need to be seen, and there are illnesses that will get missed if they are not seen."
Private pathology labs have reported a drop in testing, and a spokesperson for NSW Health pathology said they too had experienced a downturn in the number of non-COVID pathology tests.
"NSW Health Pathology urges people to prioritise their health and not delay essential pathology tests and treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic," she said. "This is particularly important for anyone living with long-term conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
"We have noted a slight downturn in the number of non-COVID pathology tests, and therefore would like to reassure the community it is safe to visit their GP, hospital, or specialist to get the care they need."
An online survey conducted by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners in May found that 43 per cent of GPs experienced a 10-30 per cent decrease in income since the same time last year, and 27 per cent had seen a 30-to-60 per cent decline.
Dr Lee Fong, secretary of Hunter GP Association and senior clinical director of Hunter Primary Care, said concerns about infection risks in waiting rooms, fewer sports-related injuries and social distancing measures lowering the incidence of colds and flu had led to a drop in patient numbers.
But Dr Fong said the community should know that GPs had put a "huge amount" of effort into making sure they were organised and equipped to see patients safely.
"What we don't want people to do is ignore their health," he said.
"If people have symptoms that could be COVID-19 and don't get them sorted out, that could result in an outbreak that contributes to the government having to reimpose social distancing restrictions.
"If people have a known chronic condition that isn't being looked after properly, that could result in that condition getting worse.
"And if somebody has a new symptom that isn't looked at early, that could result in a late diagnosis that turns something that was curable into something that isn't. Even in these difficult times, we should all still look after our health - and the first port of call is with our GP."
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