New data identifies Australians at most risk of missing out on non-COVID healthcare

A national survey of 13,829 Australians has identified risk factors common among people who faced reduced access to healthcare for non-COVID related health problems during physical distancing restrictions pertaining to the pandemic. As the nation’s routine healthcare systems buckle under the strain of current Omicron outbreaks, these findings may also help clinicians and policy-makers target those most at risk of missing potentially life-saving medical care for non-COVID illnesses.

The researchers found that people with symptoms of depression and anxiety, who performed unpaid work, lived alone, were of a low socioeconomic status, were living on government benefits, or who had personal experience of COVID-19 explained 44–50 per cent of reduced access to necessary health/disability care during pandemic restrictions.

First author Professor Flavia Cicuttini says, “Our findings can help doctors identify and prioritise Australians who may have missed out on potentially life-saving medical care for non-COVID related health issues during lockdowns. They may further help them identify those most vulnerable to poorer health outcomes as our health systems buckle under the Omicron outbreak, which is also creating barriers to healthcare.

“Missed opportunities in routine healthcare can lead to much worse outcomes across a raft of medical conditions, including mental health, cancer and chronic disease. We therefore urge doctors to pay particular attention to patients with depression and anxiety, who perform unpaid work, live alone, are of low socioeconomic status, live on government benefits, or who have personal experience of COVID-19.”

The findings align with previous international studies revealing globally reduced presentations for routine healthcare across hospital and primary healthcare settings.

Experiencing clinically significant depressive symptoms was associated with the largest proportion of worse access to non-COVID-19 health/disability care, independent of other factors. The data suggest that access to health and disability care could be improved by up to 20 per cent by targeting this risk factor alone.

The rapidly changing landscape of the pandemic has meant Australians have had to digest and respond to equally rapid changes in public health messaging. Prof Cicuttini says, “We are facing major challenges as we deal with the current wave of Omicron. Once we emerge from this, it will be important to make sure that our most vulnerable groups are not left behind as we catch up on much needed healthcare for non-COVID conditions.”

The data was gathered in April 2020 as part of the first wave of the Living With COVID Restrictions study. The online surveys, initiated by researchers with the School’s Global and Women’s Health Unit, aimed to see how people in Australia were experiencing life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The April 2020 wave was the largest survey of nationwide mental health during the height of the restrictions in Australia.

Link to paper: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/hsc.13699


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