High-profile health diagnoses prompt health checks

When high-profile people go public with their health diagnoses, it can prompt more people to see their GP, AMA Queensland President Dr Maria Boulton said.

Transcript: AMA Queensland President, Dr Maria Boulton, ABC North Queensland, Late mornings with Susan Graham-Ryan, Monday 12 February 2024

Subjects: High profile health updates – King Charles cancer diagnosis

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: You've likely heard of the health diagnosis of King Charles, who was found to have a form of cancer, and from time to time, you might hear of notable public figures and celebrities and some of their health matters. When you do, does it make you consider your own health and think maybe that's a sign for you to get those things checked that you may have been putting off? Well, Australian Medical Association Queensland President is Dr Maria Boulton, and she might be able to put some insight into this. Good morning.

DR MARIA BOULTON: Good morning, Susan.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: So most recently we've heard of the cancer diagnosis for King Charles. Are those high-profile health updates being so public a good thing?

DR MARIA BOULTON: I think it's a good thing when it prompts people to actually go and get a health check, or perhaps prompts them to book that health check that they've been putting off. I do feel, though, for the public person who has their very private details bandied about in the media. But sometimes what does happen, you'll find that there are some people that do it for a reason, to encourage others to get those health screenings.

I'm a GP, and certainly whenever there's a public figure that announces perhaps an illness or a change in their lifestyle, we do start seeing patients just coming in asking questions around that particular issue. We also see it when someone in the community unexpectedly passes away. Sadly, we had a parent in the community pass away a few years ago, and I remember we had a lot of friends, family and just general members of the community who perhaps knew that person come in and ask for health checks about that condition.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: I mean, it's sad that it has to be that, but if it means that people are taking that proactive step, then that's got to be a good thing. Are there any other incidents that you've maybe noticed over time, that people have made those public disclosures? It may even be about things like endometriosis or some of those other things that people then go ‘oh, maybe that's the thing, that's some of the symptoms that I've been having’.

DR MARIA BOULTON: Most definitely. We saw it around Emma Wiggle, for example, who is very public about her endometriosis battle. People do come in saying ‘look, I've had some of the same symptoms, could it be endometriosis?’ And we know that for endometriosis, there's a particular delay in diagnosis for a lot of women out there, which is it's not fair and it's not good enough.

We also saw, I don't know if you remember, a few years ago on one of the American media television programs, one of the journalists actually had a colonoscopy live. That resulted in a lot of people coming to ask about ‘do I need a bowel screening, what's my risk of bowel cancer?’, then either getting the faecal occult blood test or booking in for a colonoscopy if that was warranted.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: Yeah, I guess it kind of breaks that taboo of speaking about things, because sometimes it is not spoken about, some of what people perceive to be more sensitive tests.

DR MARIA BOULTON: Yes, and sometimes people can have just unusual symptoms that they perhaps have had for some time. It's when they read in the media and, you know, the media has this amazing reach that sometimes not-for-profits don't have, and they do catch something on the media saying ‘this person is suffering from this, and now they have this’. Then they say ‘oh my goodness, that sounds like me’. It prompts them to come and see us.

I guess as far as GPs go, we do welcome people who come in to ask us ‘what's my risk of bowel cancer, what's my risk of heart disease, what's my risk of prostate cancer, and what can I be doing to ensure that my risk is less, or if I suffer from any of those, it gets picked up quickly?’ So, we welcome that, that's our job, to keep people healthy and to also diagnose things early.

I think it's essential that if you're a member of the public and you're really concerned, that you just make that appointment with your GP, and you can go through your symptoms, through your family history and make a plan as to what screening or investigations you need.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: Thinking back a little bit as well, there was the Angelina Jolie effect, which I think became a story afterwards because there was such a spike in those genetic tests for breast cancer after she had that public disclosure, and she had the mastectomies. Do you notice it, is it something that you see a real uptick and has this saved anyone's lives, do you think?

DR MARIA BOULTON: Most definitely. And we also noticed that after Kylie Minogue was diagnosed with breast cancer, we saw that certainly over the next six weeks there was a huge increase in people booking for mammograms, for example. Just in Australia, there was a 40 per cent increase in the first two weeks after Kylie Minogue's diagnosis. It is noticeable.

But the sad truth is that in Australia, when you look at our spending on preventive activities and screening, it's not as high as other countries. It's really sad because it seems that we continue to build hospitals because we need them, but wouldn't it be great if we could spend more money on prevention, more money on people accessing GP care and having the time to chat with their GP about their particular risks and making a plan for screening rather than waiting until somebody is sick, basically when it might be too late.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: I think a lot of people will agree with you there. And in the regions, a lot of people do face the challenge of not being able to get into a GP as often or as quick as they like, but that's a conversation for another time.

You mentioned earlier, and I think that this is a good point - for you, me, for everybody, regardless of our profile, when it comes to health and those disclosures, it can be really sensitive. Should people have an expectation that other people, particularly high-profile people, will share their details, or should they be able to have that choice to keep it private if they wish?

DR MARIA BOULTON: I think everyone has the right to keep their private information private. I think it's really important. Having a cancer diagnosis is a big thing in anyone's life and in their family's life, and we can’t expect someone to go and share it with the public when they themselves haven't had a chance to process it. When you see a patient who has a new diagnosis of cancer, they're so busy getting all the information, seeing their specialists and starting their treatments, sometimes it takes some time to actually process the fact that you've been diagnosed with cancer. I think people deserve the right to have that time to be able to go process the diagnosis and find out that information before reading about it in the media.

SUSAN GRAHAM-RYAN: Dr Maria Boulton from AMA Queensland, thanks so much for your thoughts this morning.


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