Changes in public health-seeking behaviours for self-limiting respiratory tract infections across England during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read B., McLeod M., Tonkin-Crine S., Ashiru-Oredope D., Quigley A., Brown CS., Lecky DM.
BACKGROUND: National Health Service (NHS) guidance for acute respiratory tract infections (RTIs) advocates self-care, encourages utilization of local pharmacies and recommends consulting general practitioners (GPs) primarily for the vulnerable or those with persistent symptoms. Coronavirus disease 2019 exerted substantial strain on the English NHS, affecting public access to primary care services. METHODS: For 3 years, public surveys assessed RTI incidences in the previous 12 months and associated health-seeking behaviours. Telephone surveys of 1676 respondents across England were conducted in March 2021 and 1663 respondents in March 2022. Findings were compared with a face-to-face baseline survey of 2022 respondents from March 2020. Key demographics were representative of the population. RESULTS: In 2021, the proportion of respondents who reported an RTI (51%) significantly declined from 2020 (70%, P < 0.05), then returned to pre-pandemic rates in 2022 (67%). Respondents reported more proactive symptom management in both 2021 and 2022 from 2020: there were greater reports of seeking over-the-counter treatments (55%, 55% vs. 35%, P < 0.05) and use of alternative remedies (38%, 38% vs. 21%, P < 0.05). 2022 observed a reduction in those who reported consulting their GP for their most recent RTI (15%) compared to 2021 (25%, P < 0.05) and 2020 (23%), which was not accounted for through greater consultation rates with other healthcare services. CONCLUSIONS: Public health bodies should consider how pandemic-related changes may have facilitated increased self-care for self-limiting infections such as RTIs. Resources and support must include safety-netting advice to safeguard against unintentional consequences of increased self-care.