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Telehealth gets $20 million injection

Thursday, 19 March 2020  
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Return to home page editor Rebecca McBeth


The Government is pumping $20 million into increasing telehealth capacity for general practice and community providers as part of its COVID-19 response.


An increasing number of general practices are already enabling the technology to provide virtual consultations as a way of managing workload and preventing face-to-face contact with patients where it is not necessary.


The funding is part of a wider package of $500 million to strengthen New Zealand’s health services to fight and contain COVID-19.


Another $20 million will go into Healthline to hire more doctors and nurses to provide clinical advice over the phone, as the telephone service is currently handling more than 5000 calls a day.


Many general practices already have the ability to offer telehealth appointments via their patient portals. Around two-thirds of practices offer a portal, but Ministry of Health figures from September 2019 show only 29 practices were using video conferencing at that time.


ConnectMed DevOps engineer Michael Inglis says the patient portal provider has seen a rapid uptake in the number of GPs requesting telehealth be enabled.


Once set up, patients can choose to have a telehealth appointment and the portal can also enforce telehealth appointments for doctors that are not accepting in-clinic appointments or are working from home.


ManageMyHealth chief architect Sanjeewa Samaraweera also reports a lot of interest in telehealth and says many health centres have started to enable the portal’s video consultation capability.  


Speaking to via video from his virtual clinic, ProCare Health associate clinical director Jamie Shepherd is conducting all his consultations virtually for two days this week after deciding to work from home with a cold.


He says the primary health organisation has been planning and assisting GPs to implement telehealth for some time and the COVID-19 outbreak will accelerate that.


The appetite is already there as more than 50 GPs attended a recent Facebook Live session on implementing virtual care.


ProCare Health will be working with other PHOs, regional DHBs and the Ministry of Health on where to direct the extra funding to get telehealth services up and running quickly, Shepherd says.


Key to that will be funding practices for the time it takes to set up a telehealth service.


ACC’s announcement that it will allow follow-up appointments via telehealth will also help, as that had been a limitation for GPs, he says.


Royal NZ College of GPs president Samantha Murton says many practices will need guidance on when to use virtual consultations, as well as hardware such as cameras and extra screens.


“There’s a lot of processes behind it that need to be stepped up and having the kit, the finances and the guidance to be able to do that really quickly is where I would like to see the money spent,” she says.


The College is also in discussions with the Ministry about how to ensure patients have access to digital health services, such as zero-rated data for people who are unemployed or on low incomes to access patient portals.


Rebekah Doran, medical director of Primary Health Care Ltd, which covers 13 practices in the Midlands region, says her practice already triages patients over the phone and offers telephone consults and is about to switch on Zoom for video conferencing.


“Since COVID-19 has come along there’s been a massive ramped up interest in how we deal with patients without bringing them in for a face-to-face consultation,” she says.


“We are looking at turning telehealth services on as quickly as possible.”


The telehealth funding announced by government could help those practices that need to purchase equipment, as well as pay for training and education around the change in work flows.


Chair of New Zealand’s National Telehealth Leadership Group Ruth Large says the group welcomes the funding for telehealth, describing broad virtual health/telehealth services as “invaluable”.


“These services allow patients to receive care wherever they may be and have been a vital part of the pandemic response in other countries,” she says.


“It will not just the technology that is important here and collaboration is key across the sector. The NZTLG looks forward to working with the Ministry on these plans going forward.”


For guidance and resources on setting up and using telehealth services, see the NZ Telehealth Resource Centre.


If you would like to provide feedback on this news story, please contact the editor Rebecca McBeth.


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