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Leveraging the opportunity of Covid-19

Tuesday, 30 June 2020  
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Picture: Deputy director general data and digital Shayne Hunter editor Rebecca McBeth


The Ministry of Health and chief information officers are committed to not reverting to old ways of working following the rapid digitisation of services due to Covid-19, the deputy director general data and digital says.


Shayne Hunter spoke at the online Healthcare Conference 2020 on 25 June where he told attendees that Covid-10 has “been a great catalyst for some serious progress” in the data and digital space.


"It's really exciting what we've been able to achieve, we absolutely have to leverage this opportunity," he said.


Hunter described the “very dynamic and fluid situation” the Ministry dealt with as the Covid-crisis unfolded and how technology needed to be applied to the response.


The key areas were; how do we communicate; how do we gather intelligence; how do we manage patients effectively; and how do we coordinate what's going on?


Data was critical to understanding the potential impact on the health system and how that could be managed, so they needed a data platform and an assessment of what data was available and accessible and what they needed to create.


“We had a standard for the community based assessment centers, stood up and published within a week, which we've never done through a health standards organisation before, but we needed to move very fast,” said Hunter.


The Ministry also developed a national contact tracing solution in 10 days, when that would have previously taken 12-18 months, he said.


The Ministry developed two apps. Âwhina is a communications channel for the health workforce and the COVID Tracer app enables the public to keep a diary of where they have been by scanning QR codes.


“Everyone was saying you need to use Bluetooth, but we actually moved down a different path, because it was going to be more expeditious,” explained Hunter.


Enabling virtual working, both for health providers and for Ministry staff was another focus, as 95 percent of staff worked from home during that time.


For GPs and other health professionals working from home, there was an accelerated move to use telehealth and a huge uptake of electronic prescribing with 700 practices now using the NZ Electronic Prescription Service compared with under 300 in December 2019.


Hunter said the numbers are rapidly moving towards 100 percent of GPs signed up for the service.


There has also been a fast shift to cloud-based services and products such as Microsoft Teams for collaboration.


He said the Ministry is working through lessons learned and how to embed these positive changes so people do not slip back into old habits and behaviours.


“Many of these solutions are actually better for patients and the workforce, and people have a new expectation and they don't want to revert," he says.


For example, the waiver that allows electronic prescriptions to be sent without a paper prescription having to follow is not sustainable, so they need a long-term solution to deal with that.


While the arrival of Covid-19 meant the business case for a national Health Information Platform did not go before Cabinet in March as planned, some aspects of it have already been able to move forward as part of the pandemic response, such as digital identity, said Hunter.


“The nHIP strategic direction around joining things up rather than creating a single monolithic system has been proven to be the way to go and security, privacy and trust is important, that's an absolute,” he told attendees.


Overall, he said there is a new confidence, particularly amongst the clinical workforce, that they can use technology to help provide care to patients.


“We’ve learned that necessity is the mother of invention and that was absolutely key to the response: doing what you need to do to make it happen,” he explained.


Another important lesson is that, “we can procure at speed” and “we need to look at how to sustain that”.


The sector also needs new funding models to incentivse this new way of working.


"The challenge now is to not let our foot off the pedal too much, and to look at how we take advantage of where we find ourselves," Hunter said.


Hear more from Shayne Hunter about the MoH’s digital response to Covid-19 at the NZ session of the UK’s Virtual Summer School on July 24. HiNZ and Digital Health have collaborated to bring you this event.


Hunter will be joined by Canterbury DHB chief digital officer Stella Ward, chair of the NZ Telehealth Forum Ruth Large and Medical Director Tū Ora Compass Health, Christopher Fawcett.


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


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