Eighteen months into the pandemic there is little doubt that COVID and lockdowns have had a range of impacts on the healthcare sector.
Few Australians have not been affected in some way or another by the COVID pandemic and rolling successive lockdowns. And for those in the healthcare sector, the impacts have come in ways that could not have been foreseen.
The healthcare sector has not only had to respond to an international healthcare crisis the likes of which many have ever seen, it has also had to try to continue to function as it normally would outside of a pandemic.
Resources have been stretched or redirected and there has been increased pressure to fill gaps in healthcare jobs, and there have been a range of other specific healthcare sector impacts.
In response to critical shortages in the healthcare sector, several medical bodies, including the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), established a sub-register for a 12-month period to create a surge workforce and fast-track the return of experienced and qualified health practitioners.
The need to offer pandemic-safe consultations to ensure continued treatment of non COVID-related illness, particularly during lockdowns, saw massive changes to the government’s approach to telehealth and the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS).
While this outcome was positive in terms of ensuring availability of general patient care, there were some downsides. For example, the use of technology proved challenging at times and could be limiting in managing complex health situations.
Hours worked and income
During the early days of the pandemic when much of Australia was in some level of lockdown or another, workers in the healthcare sector were impacted in a variety of ways.
Many allied health providers were unable to provide their services at all for a period of time, while GPs found that the replacement of face-to-face appointments with telehealth led to an overall slight increase in the total volume of services provided. And, at least initially, predominantly attributable to the suspension of non-elective surgery, non-GP specialists witnessed a reduction in patient numbers and hours worked on average of between 30 and 40 percent.
These variations in hours led to marked drops in income for some healthcare professionals, with 65% of GPs, 83% of non-GPs and 30% of anaesthetists and surgeons reporting varying falls in income during the initial phase of the pandemic. GPs in urban areas or in more affluent areas tended to see greater falls in income than other GPs due to them being generally more likely to charge higher fees rather than bulk bill.
The non-financial fallout of a change in hours and income was an increase in stress level and mental health issues amongst healthcare workers.
While GPs and non-GPs alike were generally satisfied with support provided to them, issues around supply of PPE early in the pandemic and issues connected to the vaccination program throughout 2021 added significant stress.
The positive side of this situation was that this came at a time when the government recognised the mental health impact of the pandemic more broadly across the country. It responded by injecting more funds into mental health services, the corollary being that healthcare professionals working in mental health services were in high demand.
Community Health Centres
With lockdowns often tied to a requirement of travel for essential purposes only, linked to the nature of Community Health Centres as being hubs for the provision of a variety of services and health promotion activities, these centres saw a decline of as much as 43% during the most stringent lockdown periods.
The decline was not offset by a similar increase in telehealth provision from the centres.
Luckily for this sector, many of the healthcare workers attached to them were covered by the Jobkeeper program, meaning there was not a huge drop off in staff numbers and that once lockdowns were wound back, the centres could once again offer their services due to being appropriately staffed.
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