Coronavirus: GPs move to minimise patient contact in bid to stop spread of COVID-19

As fears COVID-19 is already being transmitted in the community, GPs have moved to have clinical consultations take place by phone or video.

The move is aimed at protecting both the community and doctors on the frontline in the battle against the spread of coronavirus, says Dr Bryan Betty, medical director of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners (RNZCGP).

"I think over the weekend the general practice profession felt that it needed to take a step forward in this direction," Dr Betty told The AM Show on Monday. "It's really, really important in New Zealand that we protect our vulnerable communities." 

Although 80 to 90 percent of people will not be severely affected by COVID-19, vulnerable people such as the elderly, or the Māori and Pacific communities are more at risk, said Dr Betty.

"This is about your neighbour, it's about the person down the street, it's about people in society who can't protect themselves. And I believe at this point that every New Zealander has a duty to actually act in a way that protects the most vulnerable in our society."

GPs have changed the way they work in order to minimise contact between those waiting for medical attention and also between patients and the doctors caring for them. 

"As doctors we thought the responsible thing to do was reduce the amount of people that were coming into waiting rooms around the country. And that's why we took this step," Dr Betty said.

The new way of dealing with patients is "not about shutting general practice".

"This is about interacting with the general practice or your general practitioner or your doctor in a different way. 

"So it may be when you ring for your appointment today the surgery will ring you back and there will be a phone call and a video consultation, or if you need to be seen you will be seen. You will be brought down to the surgery at an appropriate time to see a doctor."

Although the impetus for the move was driven by a concern to protect patients, Dr Betty said it is also necessary to protect the health of frontline medical staff.

At the moment, all GPs have access to personal protection equipment which they will use if a patient has suspected respiratory problems.

"Doctors are also instituting simple things in the surgery," Dr Betty said. "If you do come in they may stay more than a metre away from you for most of the consultation as they talk to you. Then if they need to examine you will come in with the protective equipment then come out again."

Coronavirus: GPs move to minimise patient contact in bid to stop spread of COVID-19

New Zealand currently has 66 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with four suspected cases.

Of the confirmed cases, authorities said two of those had yet to be proven to be linked with overseas travel, meaning there was a chance of community spread.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a national alert system. Currently, the country is at level 2, meaning that although COVID-19 is contained there is a risk of community transmission. Level 3 is the next level that could apply to Kiwis and would come into effect if authorities believed there was a heightened risk the virus was no longer contained.

Level 4 - the highest level - would be activated if it is likely COVID-19 is not contained nationally or at a local level. There would need to be widespread community transmission for this to be activated and all people would need to stay at home. All education facilities and non-essential businesses would be closed, supplies rationed and travel severely limited. 

Dr Betty said the actions implemented now are crucial for controlling the virus' long-term impact here.

"We're on a bit of a cusp - if we run into community spread here, widespread community spread here there is no doubt that the levels will go up and we will go into lockdown," he said.

"We can stop this, we can avoid it, we can cut this down and slow this down if everyone plays their part and that's the critical thing about this.  Everyone needs to practise that physical distance that we've talked about. Everyone needs to minimise their contact in supermarkets, or out in the community, or walking the dog in the street, with other people.

"We've got a duty of care there, we've got a duty of care to protect our society and that is the way you do it."