GPs booked out as patient numbers surge and staff, testing shortages hit

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General practitioners are being booked out en masse amid a surge of coronavirus patients, severe staffing shortages and a lack of rapid antigen tests that would allow doctors to see more people.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ Victorian chair, Anita Munoz, said she was increasingly worried there could be Victorians ill with coronavirus or other serious conditions who were “trying to go it alone at home” after being unable to book appointments.

“General practices are fully and overbooked, so it is very unlikely that a person who contacted their GP today would be able to get immediate consultation,” she said.

Dr Munoz said patients needed a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis as a prerequisite for being linked to a state government program aimed at monitoring those with coronavirus at home.

For thousands of Victorians, this has been impossible, as the PCR testing system has buckled and amid a national shortage of rapid antigen tests.

Anita Munoz, Victorian chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

She said while doctors would do their best to make room for urgent patients, some general practitioners were being booked out weeks in advance as they juggled “business as usual”, paediatric coronavirus vaccinations and a rising wave of COVID-19 patients.

On Monday, as almost 35,000 new COVID-19 infections were announced, bringing the state’s active cases to more than 161,065, Dr Munoz called on the federal government to declare a “state of national disaster”.

While a state of disaster has been declared in Victoria several times in the past two years, including during the pandemic and the January 2020 bushfires, Dr Munoz said the Omicron outbreak needed action at a national level.

“This situation is really causing a huge amount of concern in medical circles and part of that concern is that it seems that leaders and decision-makers are not appreciating the magnitude of the crisis we are in,” she said.

“They haven’t called a national state of disaster yet. This is something I cannot understand because the situation is disastrous, and we will have many thousands of people in the community self-managing with or without diagnosis.”

Acting Chief Health Officer Ben Cowie.Credit:Simon Schluter

About one in 40 Victorians are now recorded as having active COVID-19 infections, though acting Chief Health Officer Ben Cowie said the figure was probably closer to one in 25.

“That sounds like a shocking statistic, and it is on one level. On the other level, we are not seeing that translate into the sort of hospitalisations that we would have back with the first wave or indeed last year with the Delta virus,” he said.

There were 818 people in hospital on Monday, up from 752 on Sunday.

“Just with the sheer scale of transmission, our hospital pressure is going to continue to increase to levels that we have not seen throughout this entire pandemic,” he said.

General practitioner Alastair Stark, one of the clinical leads at Westcare Medical Centre in Melton in Melbourne’s outer west, said his clinic was booked out for appointments until at least next week, so he was phoning coronavirus patients in between back-to-back appointments.

Several doctors at the clinic had recently been infected with the virus, leaving it understaffed. Calls to the clinic were being diverted to receptionists isolating at home after being exposed to the virus.

He said the clinic was in the process of taking on retired doctors to take phone calls from coronavirus patients.

Dr Stark said his clinic was “desperately” trying to source rapid antigen tests for furloughed staff, with some unable to return to work because they could not clear themselves of possible infection.

Geelong GP Bernard Shiu said some medical practices were cancelling appointments due to severe staffing shortages. “It is a huge problem,” he said.

While Dr Shiu had limited rapid antigen tests available for staff, he was rationing that supply with other nearby healthcare services.

“We are all calling each other saying, ‘Can you spare one or two RATs for my doctors, or my practice manager, so we can continue to maintain some kind of service to our patients,’ ” he said.

Western suburbs GP Hanna El-Khoury said he was relieved that the vast majority of his patients had so far been only mildly ill with Omicron.

“Patients are saying they have a fever, body aches and a sore throat, but in most cases this seems to have cleared up within a few days,” he said.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ national president, Karen Price, called for rapid antigen or PCR testing to be prioritised for Victorians who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. Of concern, she said, were rising numbers of people being diagnosed with coronavirus after presenting at hospital following a deterioration of chronic conditions such as heart failure or diabetes.

She urged households to have a plan for coronavirus, echoing Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd, who advised the public to ensure they had paracetamol or ibuprofen in case they tested positive.

People with a high fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, breathlessness, persistent cough or who feel abnormally tired and weak and are struggling to get out of bed are urged to seek medical advice.

The state and federal government have been contacted for comment.

National coronavirus helpline 1800 020 080. Victorian coronavirus hotline 1800 675 398.

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