“Make sure you familiarise yourself with any pre-admission screening requirements. And bring a book or something on the day to take your mind off the wait, just in case there is one.” —Rebecca Windsor, CEO, Private Health Insurance, Australian Unity
- In 2021, our satisfaction with our health fell for the first time in the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index’s history.
- The pandemic had a significant impact on our hospital and healthcare system and, as a result, the wait for elective surgeries is getting longer. To avoid disruption, it pays to be prepared and familiarise yourself with hospital protocols before your visit.
- Many of us have not kept up to date with routine GP visits and allied health services. Our experts stress that now is the time to get those back on track.
It goes without saying that the pandemic has been incredibly challenging for our hospitals. They need to treat people infected with COVID-19 while also providing a safe space for other, sometimes incredibly vulnerable, patients—all the while dealing with the threat of infection to staff. What occurred as a result of the pandemic has been a complete overhaul of hospital and medical processes and protocols.
If you’ve got a hospital stay coming up, the good news is our world-class healthcare system continues to cope impressively with the COVID-19 curveball. Here’s what’s changed, and what to expect from your next visit.
The bigger picture
But first, let’s put these changes into a broader context.
The long lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 had a significant impact on the health of many Australians, as well as on our ability to access certain healthcare services.
Sheltering in place caused many people to become very sedentary—and, perhaps to cope with the stress of it all, some of us drank more alcohol. According to Rebecca Windsor, CEO of Private Health Insurance at Australian Unity, there was some evidence of increased weight gain and blood pressure during lockdown. In addition, we skipped routine screening tests and check-ups—like going to the dentist—due to restrictions and concerns over contracting COVID-19.
The pandemic’s impact on our mental health has been well-documented, while, anecdotally, Rebecca has also heard that suboptimal work-from-home set-ups have caused a spike in neck and shoulder complaints.
Satisfaction with health fell sharply in 2021
It took a while for us to feel the effects of all this. The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index—a 20-year study into the wellbeing of Australians, created in partnership with Deakin University—shows that Australians’ satisfaction with their health was high in 2020, but swan dived in 2021, landing below the average range for the first time on record.
“In 2021, things were starting to crumble,” says Kate Lycett, lead researcher of the Wellbeing Index from Deakin University’s School of Psychology. “They hadn’t quite crumbled, but we were seeing that Delta was emerging, there were more infectious strains of COVID-19, and people were probably more concerned about that.”
An increase in hospital waiting times
At the same time as this was happening, the health system was being tested to its limits by COVID-19 outbreaks and new safety protocols. Rebecca says the pandemic has left public hospitals with a backlog of elective surgeries, while they’re battling a winter influx of COVID-19 and flu.
Dr Rachel David, CEO of Private Healthcare Australia, suspects this backlog will be tough to get through, because “public hospitals aren’t set up to churn through a large number of surgeries. Their theatres don’t operate for as long as they do in the private sector, and they often get interrupted by emergencies.”
Healthcare workers and patients contracting COVID-19 can further delay treatments in both the public and private sector, and workforce constraints aren’t helping.
“There is a ‘war for talent’ between acute care, disability care and aged care, which has affected public hospitals and private,” says Rachel.
“On top of all this, there’s a fair chance of increased waiting times at the hospital on the day of a procedure due to heightened infection control,” adds Rebecca.
How to prepare for your procedure
Even though COVID-19 is no longer as prominent in the news headlines, infection control is still very important—particularly in the winter months. That means it’s still good practice to keep following the guidelines around wearing masks, washing your hands and social distancing.
In the lead-up to your procedure, make sure you “familiarise yourself with any pre-admission screening requirements,” says Rebecca. “And bring a book or something on the day to take your mind off the wait, just in case there is one.”
Remember that some hospitals are still restricting visitors, so consider whether you will need a support person—because of language or hearing difficulties, or severe anxiety, for example.
“If you do need that support person and the hospital can accommodate them, that support person will also have to go through some of those screening elements,” says Rebecca. “So it’s probably good to reach out to the hospital to have that conversation in advance.” This is something your specialist may be able to assist with, she adds.
Rachel also recommends scheduling a pre-admission check-up with your GP—not only because we need to catch up on the routine screening tests we’ve missed since 2020, but also because doing so can help prevent unexpected delays.
“The last thing that you want to happen is to discover for the first time that you have an issue with
your blood pressure when you’ve been admitted to hospital for elective surgery,” says Rachel. “That can create all sorts of issues because the surgery may need to be postponed.”
Getting our health back on track
As our healthcare system continues to work through the backlog while battling COVID-19 outbreaks and staff shortages, we can all help to take some of the pressure off by focusing on preventative care.
But after all the changes of the past two years, how do we go about turning things around?
A good place to start is by scheduling in check-ups with your GP, dentist, optometrist and other allied healthcare providers to address overdue screening tests and any physical and psychological issues that have popped up since the pandemic’s outbreak.
Diet and exercise also play an important role in preventative care, and Rachel suggests using your health fund as a go-to resource for science-backed advice.
“There’s no shame in it, we’re all in very good company,” she says. “Throughout the country, pretty much everyone has had one or two of these issues over the pandemic period—we’re only human.
“But health funds are available to help with these things, and there’s a lot of evidence-based diet and exercise advice. This is important to point out because some of the stuff you read is very pejorative and all about comparing yourself to other people—particularly some of the ads for gyms and things on TikTok and Instagram.
“Not only is some of the advice positively unhealthy, but the images are completely unrealistic.”
That’s not what we’re talking about here, Rachel stresses—what we’re talking about are very practical and balanced strategies to support and improve your Real Wellbeing.
The last two years have had a significant impact on both our health and our healthcare system. While our hospitals are still dealing with the effect of the pandemic—and you’ll notice some changes if you’re due for a procedure—there are some concrete steps we can take to support our own health in the meantime.
Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.