Tens of thousands of Australians with chronic diseases are putting themselves at risk by missing vital GP visits.
The number of visits to doctors for the management of chronic disease has dropped by nearly 100,000 in a year, with patients skipping potentially life-saving cholesterol tests to manage and prevent heart disease.
New data from the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) reveals a 10 per cent drop in chronic disease GP visits in March 2020 - that's 96,000 less visits compared to the same time last year.
Alongside the impact of COVID-19 on the fall in chronic disease visits, pathology data from NSW shows a 28 per cent drop in cholesterol tests being processed in March compared to the same time in February 2020.
Heart Foundation Chief Medical Adviser, cardiologist Professor Garry Jennings, said the data also showed an 18 per cent drop in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Checks this March compared to the same time last year.
"These are potentially life-saving check-ups, tests and monitoring that people are missing out on," Professor Jennings said.
"We know that nearly one in two Australians live with one or more chronic conditions and more than four million of these people live with cardiovascular disease.
"A doubling of the number of calls to our helpline compared to the same time last year tells us that many Australians living with heart disease are worried about their risk of COVID-19 complications, especially as restrictions ease.
"Our message is very clear - it is vital that you continue to monitor your heart health and maintain your regular medical care, and there are options for you to do this safely via telehealth or in person.
"What we don't want to see is a stalling of the progress we have made in Australia in reducing preventable deaths caused by chronic diseases."
The Royal College of General Practitioners (RACGP) President, Dr Harry Nespolon, said the new data was concerning and urged patients not to put off important medical appointments and tests.
"It's never been easier to access your GP - with consultations now available by telephone or videoconferencing, as well as in person," said Dr Nespolon.
"For most people, a phone or video consultation with their GP will be suitable, but for those patients who still need to see their GP in person, we're reminding them that it is safe to do so given the infection control processes in place."
Professor Jennings said the drop in lipid tests, including for LDL and HDL cholesterol, were particularly concerning as cholesterol needs to be routinely measured.
"There are rarely any signs or symptoms attributed to changes in cholesterol levels, yet left undetected and untreated, these changes can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke."
Professor Jennings said that while the MBS data showed GPs had claimed more than one million telehealth items in March 2020, only a small proportion of GP visits for the management of chronic disease were delivered via telehealth.
"It's reassuring to see that telehealth has been taken up by a higher proportion of older Australians, aligning well with the group of people we know are more likely to have multiple chronic conditions and be at higher risk of COVID-19 complications.
"But we want to see people at risk of or living with heart disease continue to see their GP about managing their condition, whether it be by telehealth or if needed, face to face."
The MBS data showed an increase in shorter GP visits of less than 20 minutes, compared to the same time last year, which is likely a reflection of increased flu vaccinations.
Telehealth has helped slightly bridge the gap for longer GP consults of more than 20 minutes, which saw a nine per cent drop compared to March 2019.