Australians have been putting off visiting the emergency department during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers warn.
But more people are going to hospital with mental health issues.
The researchers, from The University of Sydney, analysed data from four hospitals with emergency departments in the Western Sydney Local Health District.
Their “concerning” findings, published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday, show ED presentations from March 29 to May 31 were almost 25 per cent lower in 2020 than in 2019.
Presentation numbers in all triage categories were lower in 2020, except for category 1, where the patient is in a life-threatening condition and needs to have treatment immediately or within two minutes.
Overall, the number of patients admitted to hospital was lower in 2020 (8047) than 2019 (11,838).
The researchers said they feared the drop in ED presentations meant Australians were delaying seeking appropriate medical attention during the coronavirus pandemic.
Notably, the researchers also found that the number of presentations with mental health problems was higher in 2020 (an average of 8.4 daily) than in 2019 (an average of 6.9 daily).
“COVID-19 has profoundly affected health care delivery,” the researchers wrote.
“Equally concerning is the higher number of mental health-related presentations, which may reflect anxiety about COVID-19, loss of job security, or prolonged isolation.”
The researchers suggested social distancing measures designed to keep people apart may have reduced the spread of infectious diseases like pneumonia, and that home isolation may have led to fewer fractures.
However, they also believe anxiety about contracting the coronavirus at hospitals may have also played a part, and that some diseases may be going undiagnosed as a result.
To combat this problem, the researchers suggested public health authorities should encourage people with time-sensitive, potentially life-threatening conditions to go to hospital – even during pandemics.