Local GPs are splitting off their practices to specifically handle the COVID-19 vaccine in order to keep up with a surge in demand at clinics of people wanting to receive the jab.
The radical proposal comes as GP clinics will start to vaccinate thousands of Australians from Monday for the start of phase 1b of the national vaccine rollout.
Meanwhile, health experts have warned of large numbers of life-saving medical tests and diagnoses being missed due to people potentially avoiding going to the doctor because of clinics dealing with an influx of COVID vaccine appointments.
From Monday, 18 Canberra GPs and three in Queanbeyan will begin to administer vaccines to the public as part of phase 1b, after being inundated with calls last week from eligible patients looking to book an appointment to receive the jab.
Among them is the Queanbeyan GP Super Clinic, which will split its operations to have a dedicated team for the COVID vaccine.
Its practice and operations manager Lesley Rielly said the move was to ensure regular services at the clinic would not be impacted by the vaccine response.
“We have to ensure that we still maintain our continuity and care for the rest of the services,” she said.
“[The COVID vaccine team] will be run separately from the general clinic.
“While we are part of the 1b rollout, we don’t want to lose touch with the rest of the practice.”
Separate entrances for patients have been set up at the Queanbeyan clinic in order to accommodate the move to split off services.
Those eligible for 1b include people over 70, Indigenous people over 55 and people with disabilities or pre-existing medical conditions. Ms Rielly said the practice was swamped with patients trying to book in a time for a vaccine appointment last week, with calls more than doubling.
“According to our allocation, we’re looking at about 80 vaccinations per day, and once we have a hold on things, we’ll look to potentially increase that number,” she said.
“It’s one of our obligations as a bigger clinic.”
Ms Rielly said her clinic was prepared for the start of vaccinations from Monday, with the first shipment of doses to include 400 phials.
The increase in demand for GP services due to the 1b rollout has led to the head of the Australian Medical Association’s ACT branch saying there was the potential for large swathes of patients to avoid going to their GP for regular check-ups.
Dr Antonio Di Dio said there was the possibility of the perception that clinics would be too busy dealing with the vaccines and patients would not book in for standard appointments as a result.
“Every year, thousands of people get diagnosed with heart attacks and strokes and lives are saved by regular check-ups and reviews by their GPs,” Dr Di Dio said.
“The challenge is now to educate people that GPs are still open for business and normal medical care, and that check-ups shouldn’t be overlooked.”
Testing rates for a large range of cancers and diseases fell rapidly in 2020, largely driven by people staying away from clinics due to the threat of COVID-19.
While case numbers of COVID-19 have drastically fallen since then, Dr Di Dio said a similar trend of testing rates could emerge this year due to people staying away from the doctor for different reasons related to the pandemic.
Specialist GP and member of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Billy Stoupas said clinics across the country would be prepared to handle the additional patient load in coming weeks driven by the vaccine rollout.
“The biggest thing is that we want to continue seeing regular patients, with recalls and reminders already in place,” Dr Stoupas said.
“Some people might fear going to the GP because they fear it could be too busy, but GPs are well versed for the rollout.
“Most of these clinics will have procedures in place for monitoring these situations.”