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February 10, 2022

GP Closed, But You Still Need a Doctor? Emergency Isn’t Your Only Option

Meghan Grech
GP Closed, But You Still Need a Doctor? Emergency Isn’t Your Only Option
We speak to a registered doctor about which medical issues can get treatment without putting more pressure on hospitals.

Suffering sudden and confusing health symptoms – or watching a loved one go through them – can be an incredibly scary experience, especially if the local doctor’s clinic is closed. For many, even if the situation doesn’t seem life threatening, the instinct is to head to a hospital emergency department (ED) or call 000 out of fear and uncertainty around what to do.

However, Australia’s hospital system is under pressure due to an increasing amount of people visiting the ED. Even before the pandemic, waiting times were on the rise, while January’s Pandemic Code Brown, a response to the huge number of COVID-19 patients attending hospitals and staff shortages due to isolating healthcare workers, highlights just how serious the current situation has become. To ensure every patient is able to get the medical care they need, when they need it (and to lessen the burnout experienced by hospital staff), we need to rethink how often we’re relying on EDs and ambulance services for things that might be better managed elsewhere.

There are medical issues and injuries for which patients should go to emergency, … [h]owever, for less urgent issues, there is a plethora of effective treatment avenues available – even after hours.
 – DR ANDREW THOMPSON, REGISTERED DOCTOR WITH TELEHEALTH AND PRESCRIPTION SERVICE INSTANTSCRIPTS.

The ED is designed to treat severe injuries or illnesses, such as heart attacks, intense problems with breathing or bleeding, loss of consciousness, or broken bones. For minor, non-life-threatening emergencies, your local GP is a good place to start, but when they aren’t open, there are many after-hours clinics, especially in metro areas, that take walk-ins. Non-emergencies might even be treatable without leaving your home, with telehealth services like InstantScripts providing on-call doctors for general diagnoses and treatment plans over the phone, while National Home Doctor (13SICK, or 13 7245) can send a doctor to visit you at your home after-hours. If you’re unsure, government-funded service HealthDirect, known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria, has a hotline (1800 022 222 or, for Victorians, 1300 60 60 24) where you can speak to a registered nurse who will help you decide if a hospital visit is necessary. Alternatively, you can even use their online Symptom Checker for similar advice.

There’s a lot of information that goes into managing our health and it can be difficult to remember it all when it feels like an emergency. For this reason, it’s often a good idea to have a list of local services and phone numbers somewhere you can easily see it – like on the fridge! It can also help to know the best course of action in more specific circumstances, so we’ve got advice from registered GP Dr Andrew Thompson from InstantScripts, a leading telehealth and prescription service, on some of the most common reasons people visit the ED unnecessarily, the fastest ways you can get help, and the signs to watch for that might require a trip to the hospital instead. Check out his answers below.

Suspected sprain, fracture, or broken bone

Uncomplicated breaks and other bone injuries don’t always require a trip to a hospital. Dr Thompson says walk-in medical centres with integrated services, such as x-ray, pathology, and surgery facilities for simple procedures, are a good option. Some operate after hours, particularly in metro areas. X-ray referrals can be obtained from telehealth services such as InstantScripts, where a doctor provides a consultation followed by a referral.

Acute dental pain

Oral pain can often point to a dental infection. A doctor can recommend pain relief or prescribe antibiotics for the infection and, once treated, a dentist visit is the next step. For those who need immediate dental work, after hours and emergency dental clinics are also readily available in major metro areas, while some emergency medical centres can also assist. 

Migraine

Dr Thompson recommends that those suffering severe headaches and migraines consider an after-hours doctor consultation through an online telehealth service, who can advise on first-time presentations and recommend treatment plans. Severe symptoms, such as confusion, trouble speaking, numbness, vision changes, or fever, will require a trip to an ED. You should also seek an in-person GP if your symptoms don’t subside in 24 hours.

Severe flu or suspected pneumonia

Babies, young children, and over-60s with suspected pneumonia, and anyone who has a virus that comes with sustained fever, difficulty breathing, and severe chest pain, should be taken to an ED. Anyone else suffering any viral infection can seek immediate doctor consultations through an online telehealth service or walk-in medical centre. Dr Thompson usually recommends an in-person doctor consultation. Those with respiratory symptoms should also seek a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) for COVID and self-isolate while waiting for results.

Fever

When a fever occurs in a baby under three months, lasts more than three days, or is accompanied by other symptoms, such as trouble breathing, drowsiness, a stiff neck, ongoing vomiting or diarrhoea, hallucinations, muscle spasms, and sensitivity to light, Dr Thompson says they will require immediate medical attention at an ED. In other cases, a fever can be effectively treated at home with medication from a pharmacy (including late-night parmacies). If unsure, contact HealthDirect/NURSE-ON-CALL or a telehealth service. Dr Thompson also warns that fever is a symptom of COVID-19, so those experiencing one should also take a RAT.

Severe and sudden pain

Those experiencing constant, severe, and worsening chest or abdominal pain should visit an ED. Those who choose to visit a doctor in-person may be directed to a number of tests to rule out severe issues. For lower back pain or any other pain associated with muscles or joints, Dr Thompson says treatment can be sought at a walk-in medical centre or a late-night pharmacy can provide pain relief. For those who still want reassurance quickly, National Home Doctor (13-SICK) can provide after-hours in-home doctor services.

Urinary tract infection (UTI)

One of the most common reasons Australians visit an ED is for UTIs. Dr Thompson says UTIs are a relatively common concern that can be treated with antibiotics. Dr Thompson recommends seeking a telehealth consultation with a doctor, particularly for those experiencing UTI symptoms late at night. Some doctors may seek a test to confirm a diagnosis, which can be sourced from walk-in medical centres or some pharmacies.

Major rashes or other skin concerns

If a rash covers the entire body, or is accompanied by other symptoms, such as pain and fever, it warrants an ED visit. Cases with isolated rashes can be seen by a GP, and a walk-in medical centre is a good immediate option. Particularly for mild rashes or skin concerns, Dr Thompson says GPs can try some treatment options before recommending a dermatologist.

Allergic reaction

Severe symptoms such as anaphylaxis, light-headedness, difficulty breathing, wheezing, confusion, and anxiety – and even first-time presentations of allergic reactions – should be tended to in a hospital ED. People experiencing minor allergic reactions can access treatment through an online telehealth service or medical centre. Some mild cases may simply require an over-the-counter antihistamine.

Mental health symptoms or concern over the mental health of a loved one or friend

There are numerous mental health services for help and advice. Dr Thompson says those experiencing suicidal ideation or who have attempted to self-harm should seek immediate help, either at an ED or through a helpline such as Lifeline (13 11 14). For prolonged mental health issues, regular GPs and telehealth services can provide numerous strategies for Aussies to tackle mental health concerns, including mental health plans that provide Medicare-covered access to a psychologist.

 

We thank Dr Thompson for his insights. For more information about his telehealth service, InstantScripts, you can check out their website here. To read more about keeping on top of your own health checks, check out our article on how you can opt for self-collection at your next cervical screenings.

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