'Groundswell of concern' among doctors over Australia's 'frustrating' coronavirus response

GPs are struggling to meet the demand for coronavirus testing with mixed messages from health authorities adding to panic.

Patients line up at the Royal Melbourne Hospital for coronavirus testing.

Patients line up at the Royal Melbourne Hospital for coronavirus testing. Source: AAP

Australian doctors have slammed the state and federal governments for their "frustrating and confusing" response to the coronavirus.

Australian Medical Association NSW vice president Danielle McMullen said on Wednesday that necessary information has not been provided to local GPs since the outbreak started.

"There hasn't been a coordinated communications strategy," she told SBS News.

Dr McMullen said over the past week, "there were a number of health ministers and other stakeholders making different comments in the media that confused the general public and then, in turn, confused doctors."

"How are we supposed to be acting on the ground – who are we testing, how are we testing them, where are we testing them?" she asked.

"How are we supposed to be collecting these samples and still run our day-to-day businesses? Do we need rooms to be empty after a test?"

Anastasia Chillero manages eight general practices across Sydney and said conflicting health messages have added to their workload and stress.

“It’s a joke. They (NSW Health) have been putting so much pressure on general practices and it's been really hard. Some days we’ve got an isolation room and some days, we don’t.”

Anastasia Chillero says general practices have been under intense pressure.
Source: Supplied

While they were trying to eliminate the amount of contact between doctors and nurses, and patients, she said people with fly-like symptoms have been turning up without notifying the practice first. 

“There is a shortage of masks and gowns and if you have patients coming into the practice… you need to decontaminate that room. We just don’t have the resources or the staffing to be able to do the way that the protocols are.”

Dr Uday Ghore, a GP based in Sydney's inner west, said staff are working under intense pressure and found it difficult to navigate the COVID-19 guidelines and protocols set by different arms of the health network. 

“We have had a lot of stress and anxiety lately. But we managed to draw up our own protocols and used what works best for us based on all the information available to us,” Dr Ghore said.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the government would step up its outreach as the virus spreads.

As part of a new $2.4 billion coronavirus health package, $30 million is set aside for a national communications campaign to "provide people with practical advice on how they can play their part in containing the virus and staying healthy".

The health package will also include free telehealth services and pop-up testing clinics to be set up.

Greg Hunt, Scott Morrison Brendan Murphy speak to the media on Wednesday.
Source: AAP

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the campaign will "ensure timely, factual and consistent information is provided to encourage the public, and the health and aged care sectors, to adopt behaviours that will prevent and mitigate the impacts of COVID-19".

"The Australian government is working closely with states and territories to ensure COVID-19 communications to the community and to the health sector is consistent and clear," the spokesperson told SBS News.

But the AMA says the lack of strong public outreach has left a "void" that is being filled with misinformation and "noise" on social media.

"This leads to things like panic and extra stress on a healthcare system that is already going to be under strain," Dr McMullen said.

"There's been a groundswell of concern among frontline healthcare workers about what's our plan going forward."

"There is a national response plan for COVID-19 and we would just like to see that being clearly enacted … We are not seeing it being put into place quickly enough."

A clinic at the Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane.
Source: AAP

Announcing the health package on Wednesday, Mr Morrison said, "we've been working hard to stay ahead" of the outbreak.

"Every Australian has a role to play - whether you're in government, federal, state, local, whether you're an employer, whether you're an employee, wherever you happen to be."

And Australia's Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy tried to clarify which sick Australians should be tested for COVID-19.

"If you've come back from travel or you've been in contact with someone who is a confirmed case, then you should be tested," he said.

"But other Australians do not need testing and all they are doing is putting an unnecessary burden on the testing."

"The testing is being expanded and the new package will substantially increase our capacity to test with the clinics and the new pathology service."

The AMA has broadly welcomed the $2.4 billion package, calling it "a really good start, but there is much more to do to reduce the movement and spread of the virus".

"COVID-19 is a national emergency, and we must all respond accordingly. Education about how to avoid contracting this deadly virus is crucial to stop its spread," the organisation said in a statement.

There have been at least 107 cases of the virus in Australia and 21 people have recovered.  

Additional reporting: AAP

Published 11 March 2020 at 6:45pm
By Nick Baker, Hanchi Nguyen