COVID webinar underlined Nothing About Us Without Us

Australia’s leading health officials provided both caution and encouragement for consumers when they spoke on CHF’s Not Going Viral webinar this week.

The Deputy Chief Medical Officers, Professor Michael Kidd and Dr Nick Coatsworth, shared valuable insights for consumers about what to expect as the COVID-19 pandemic (hopefully) continues to wind down in Australia.

We at CHF commissioned Not Going Viral to give the two top advisers the opportunity to speak directly on the post-COVID agenda for health consumers and they took the opportunity to highlight several vital messages.

CHF would agree with the assessment that Australia’s health system should not return to the “same old, same old” given the lessons we have learned from COVID about the importance of community-wide prevention and the potential of such technological advances as digital health.

Paradoxically, while the world’s scientists strive to find a solution to COVID, for the average person there is more simple and accessible information about medicine and health care than ever. I shall return to that aspect later in this article.

At the webinar, Professor Kidd and Dr Coatsworth cautioned against complacency in the period after the COVID-19 lockdown and highlighted the role consumers can play in bringing worthwhile change to the health system.

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Australians should resist the temptation to forget the lessons from the COVID experience such as regular hand hygiene and social distancing. People needed to continue to stay at home if they had any respiratory symptoms or fever. The community must expect to live with the COVID reality for some time, they said.

Expectations about a vaccine providing the way out of the pandemic were tempered by the doctors who said uncertainty remained about a breakthrough and how effective any new vaccine might be.

But it was also a priority for those with chronic illness and serious conditions to see their doctor and for others to resume screening consultations for cancers and other conditions that might have been curtailed during the peak isolation period.

Isolation had brought particularly challenging circumstances for people with mental health issues, highlighting the need for continuing care and support for them and their carers.

They made the point that history with previous epidemics had shown that morbidity and mortality from other conditions where patients had delayed care often proved to be greater than from the original epidemic.

If there was an underlying theme in what the two had to say it was the central role that consumers could play in both encouraging and supporting the right care and in pressing for development of a stronger health system.

A great example of a reform that has come with COVID has been the expansion of Telehealth to many more patients --- perhaps one of the biggest changes to the health system since the introduction of Medicare 36 years ago.

Telehealth has come after years of appeals for it from CHF and other groups. And there remained many other ways in which consumer experience and advocacy could improve services, such as the lessons learned by people with chronic disease whose daily experience can contribute to knowledge about what approaches work best.

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As Australia moves out of lockdown, the webinar heard it was very important that CHF encouraged and reached out to people to follow up on their health care for such conditions as chronic illness, mental health issues and cancer screening.

An important health focus that has become more so with COVID has been health literacy. As an ABS health literacy survey showed last year, there are significant numbers of Australians who don’t always understand health information that affects them.

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care has identified health literacy as an intrinsic element of an effective health system. New National Safety and Quality Standards for health services updated in 2019 strengthen the health literacy focus. Hospital and health service accreditation are accredited on how well they do in the provision of health information as much as other things like hygiene.    

Fortunately there are now a growing range of sources to help people learn what they may need to know before of while seeking medical advice.These include our own Be Health Aware site and comprehensive sources provided by Healthdirect’s question builder and its symptom-checker.

There are helpful guides on Telehealth here and here.

An innovation sparked by the COVID crisis has been consumer involvement in developing living guidelines for clinical care of people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. The National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce includes representatives of CHF.

With CHF Australia’s Health Panel we are seeking to focus on topical issues to glean consumer thinking concerning developments such as Telehealth.  The survey on smart phone apps showed that consumers want support in finding accurate, effective smartphone apps for health and wellness, and that the apps should be subject to an authoritative regulatory system that rates them for efficacy.

As the Not Going Viral webinar made clear, consumer involvement is central to a successful and responsive health system.

"Nothing about us without us."

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About the author

Leanne Wells

Leanne Wells

Chief Executive of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia