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First Nations people encouraged to visit doctor

An Indigenous public health leader is urging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients to continue making contact with their regular doctor or health worker during the COVID-19 pandemic, either via telehealth appointments or in person, in order to stay well and healthy.

Dr Mark Wenitong, Senior Medical Advisor at Apunipima Cape York Health Council, said even though all North Queensland residents are being asked to stay home more to help stop the spread of coronavirus, it is very important that First Nations people keep up with all of their usual medical appointments.

“Staying healthy and keeping up with medical appointments will help keep people and communities healthy,” Dr Wenitong said.

“It’s very important for Indigenous people to keep up with their and their family’s health care, and to make sure they don’t miss immunisations and other vital health check-ups.

“There are many of our people who have high-risk health issues such as complicated diabetic feet issues, mental health, or heart conditions that need consistent health care, and we are ensuring this continues as much as possible, so please don’t think our clinics and GPs are only for COVID-19 related problems.

“My concern is that patients missing their appointment or avoiding making one can mean their health gets worse, or their treatment for a complication is delayed.

“This is particularly important for First Nations people living with, or at risk of developing, chronic illness.

“A large proportion of First Nations people in North Queensland are living with the burden of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and chronic lung disease, with many more likely living with these illnesses undiagnosed.

“There are many risk factors for developing a chronic disease, but some risk factors are only detected by examination by a doctor and appropriate blood tests.

“Checking blood pressure, monitoring heart rhythm, listening to the lungs of patients with chronic lung disease, or treating chronic skin ulcers are just a few of the processes which are difficult to conduct remotely, and doctors and healthcare workers might ask those patients to visit in person.”

Dr Wenitong said local residents can now do some of their medical appointments over the phone or the internet using a service called telehealth.

“I urge community members to contact their local health service to find out if this is an option for them and how to get started,” he said.

“If they still need to attend their appointment in person, that’s okay. Just call their doctor or medical service first to check the wait time before going in, so they don’t have to wait too long in the clinic.”

Dr Wenitong said the risk of contracting COVID-19 while visiting the doctor has been minimised by strict infection control policies.

“My message to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is that it is safe to visit your GP or healthcare worker, with lots of precautions now in place,” he said.

“Doctors are also doing more phone consultations than ever before to reduce the number of people visiting, which in turn reduces the risk of spread.”

Dr Wenitong said it was also important this year for First Nations people to protect themselves and their family from influenza, by getting a flu shot.

“Getting the flu shot won’t stop people from getting coronavirus, but it will protect them and others from getting the flu this winter,” he said.

“The flu shot is free for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over six months old, and will help to keep families healthy, and keep our hospitals and clinics free to treat coronavirus.

“You can get your free flu shot at your GP, community health clinic, or Aboriginal Medical Service.

“Remember to make an appointment first, and phone ahead to check that the health service has the vaccine available.”

As well as those living with or at risk of developing chronic illness, Dr Wenitong is also encouraging people with children under 18 months to continue with visits to their doctor or healthcare worker.

“Under normal circumstances, children under 18 months would typically see a doctor quite regularly,” Dr Wenitong said.

“Early intervention is key for this age group to ensure their health milestones remain on track, which means it’s particularly important for parents to make and keep their appointments.”

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