Jul 20, 2020

Hugs replaced by PPE as protection becomes priority


When doctors from Aged Care GP began wearing full personal protective equipment to visit aged care facilities, the initial reception to their cautious approach was highly sceptical. 

“There were many who really informally expressed they were unhappy about it,” the CEO of Aged Care GP, Dr Sachin Patel, told HelloCare.

The frustration Dr Patel experienced was clear in his voice when we caught up last week. The sense was that wearing full PPE – face shields, masks, gloves, and gowns – “wasn’t a good look”, it was too “confronting”, he said. 

But the decision was made following the team’s experience with COVID-19 in aged care facilities back in March and April, in the early stages of the pandemic, when little was known about the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus.

“We were involved in several of the early outbreaks in March and April, so we did our learning then,” Dr Patel said. 

“We knew (COVID-19) was something you can’t take your foot off the pedal. The lull that we had (when case numbers declined) was an opportunity to strengthen up and solidify processes,” he said.

Dr Patel believes the decision for his staff to wear full PPE is the right one.

“My job isn’t to please, my job is to protect,” he said. Now that Australia has, tragically, returned to a crisis situation with regards to COVID-19, the protective wear has been more widely accepted. 

Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures

As well as wearing full PPE, Aged Care GP staff have moved to telehealth appointments. Though not as personal as a visit, Dr Patel said “these are extraordinary times that require extraordinary measures”.

Once a visit is deemed necessary after a telehealth consultation, they are conducted with a minimum of contact. Doctors call from outside the facility to let managers know they are coming to see a particular resident in a particular room. They are “straight in, straight out”, Dr Patel explained.

The handover is done over the phone. 

Financial blow

The changes to procedures during COVID-19 have had a financial impact on both the business and on the doctors themselves. 

“It’s potentially, from a business perspective, harmful, because we took a hit. But we believe that if we do right by the patient, if we do everything that is within our power to keep the resident safe, then the business consideration comes after that,” Dr Patel said.

The emotion returned to Dr Patel’s voice when he spoke about how proud he is of the team of healthcare staff.

Back in March, the team was in a state of heightened fear and worry, but they are now better prepared and have strong protocols in place. The team’s concern now is for the residents.

“They just want the best for the residents… They honestly have put patients before anything else. I’m really proud of them as a team,” Dr Patel said.

Healthcare staff “in the firing line”

The team also desperately misses the residents, he said. 

“We have team members who take wool to some of the residents to help them with their knitting. We have team members who sneak in the odd Tim-Tam for residents. They love them. They normally hug them, but not now. They miss all of that,” he said.

“The health profession is in the firing line,” he said. Though fortunately none of the staff have contracted COVID-19 yet, “it’s going to happen at some point.” 

“They’re taking as many precautions as they can,” said Dr Patel.

Compulsory masks are not a silver bullet

Dr Patel said he supports the Victorian government’s decision to make masks compulsory for aged care workers, but says they are not a “silver bullet”. 

PPE was particularly important in the case of COVID-19 because the virus can be passed on while the carrier is still asymptomatic, he explained.

“It’s a good step in the right direction,” he said, but “masks alone are not going to solve it”.

PPE needs to be coupled with other stringent hygiene measures, such as excellent hand hygiene and recurrent sanitisation.

“I would like (the government) to look at the evidence with expertise,” he said. 

“I alone am not clever enough to know what the best thing is, but I do know that being extra careful is probably better than not,” he said. 

Image: South_Agency, iStock.

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