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As the world came to a standstill in March due to the coronavirus crisis, it seems many Australian women put their personal health on the back-burner, with a shocking drop in the amount of people attending regular checkups.
MBS data shows that the number of face-to-face GP attendances for women from March to June fell by almost 24% compared to the same period last year.
Jean Hailes for Women's Health CEO, Janet Michelmore AO, told Yahoo Lifestyle that in mid-March there was a sharp drop of around 40% in pathology testing nationally and in April alone, the National Cervical Screening Test rates fell by 67%.
According to Janet, there has also been a significantly sharp increase in the number of women who are anxious or depressed, with nearly a 3000% increase in demand to the women’s health clinic at The Alfred in one month alone.
Now, women are being urged to put their health first with a “monumental nudge” from experts who are extremely concerned about the dismal figures.
“In the first lockdown, women had really stopped getting checks. People were told not to go out unless it was for a medical appointment and people don’t see that screening is a medical appointment and they think, ‘I can leave that’,” Janet said.
“Also a lot of women were dealing with homeschooling and trying to manage work - screening for mammograms, cervical screening , cancer screening, that was not at the top of their priority list and i can understand why it wasn’t at the top of their priority list.”
Janet said there’s “a real concern” amongst a lot of healthcare professionals and organisations, who have been very proactive about encouraging women and men to get checked.
Nationally in August, the figures appeared to be returning to levels pre-COVID, excluding Victoria.
“But then we had stage four lockdown in Victoria and so for the week of the 10th of August for example, cervical cancer screening was down still by close to 40%,” Janet continued.
“That’s a real concern to all of us. Screening for all sorts of things, blood pressure checks, cholesterol checks, mammograms, cervical cancer, it really dropped off. ”
Janet believes some of the reasons for this are that women with children at home don’t want to go out unnecessarily or due to lockdown requirements, women are only visiting their doctor if absolutely necessary.
“There’s going to be a delicate balance in Victoria of encouraging people to go and get their regular checks versus the requirements of lockdown,” she continued.
In March, the government introduced a Telehealth service to help stop the spread of COVID-19, with Aussies able to receive essential care by video conferencing or phone call. By April, more than three million patients had used the service,
‘The government’s new Telehealth has been fantastic because it’s enabled women who are isolated at home to get the support they need,” Janet said.
In its annual National Women’s Health Survey, Jean Hailes identified the two biggest barriers to women following a healthy lifestyle is ‘lack of time’ and ‘health not being a priority’.
“This week is a real opportunity for women to feel supported, get information that they’ve asked us that they want but most importantly it’s a monumental nudge to make sure you keep up to date with your screening because that’s how we prevent ill health. And we all know that but it’s been easy to put it on the back-burner,” Janet said.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners is also urging women to book a health check with their GP and to stop putting it off.
“We know that women can tend to put the needs of their loved ones before themselves – on top of that many have faced additional stress, anxiety and financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” RACGP spokesperson Dr Lara Roeske said.
“My message to women across Australia is this: even in the most difficult times, it’s important to take care of your own health and wellbeing.
“For those who may have missed a scheduled health check in the past months, Women’s Health Week serves as a valuable reminder – call your GP and book that appointment today.”
She stressed that pregnant women are a particular concern and should be attending regular checkups to ensure the health and wellbeing of both mother and child.