A matter of time: Telehealth’s imminent impact on New Zealand

February 17, 2015
Stephen Murray, Asia-Pacific Business Development Manager & New Zealand General Manager

Globally, telehealth is working and it’s working well. Areas like Australia, the United Kingdom and parts of Europe are prime examples of how an effective telehealthcare model can improve patient wellbeing and reduce healthcare costs, and it’s just a matter of time before New Zealand catches up.

On the radar

Telehealth is already being used in some way by most District Health Boards (DHBs) around the country. The National Health IT Board believes telehealth will underpin changes in the way healthcare is delivered to the public, and the government has committed to increasing its use. However, more could be done to ensure the right technologies and systems are used appropriately and effectively so that the best possible care is delivered for patients, while remaining cost effective for the economy.

There’s still a lack of understanding on what telehealth is and its potential in this country, which means a massive amount of education needs to occur to show providers and patients how much these systems could benefit healthcare in New Zealand. As providers, it is our responsibility to be involved in this education.

Continuing care important

One of the major differences between our telehealth model and those around the world is the way in which telehealth is used. Currently, many of New Zealand’s DHBs are using technology to improve service, rather than driving continuing care for patients. In Australia, telehealth is largely used as part of the care continuum and while we’re a long way from that right now, it is absolutely something that is within our sight.

Proven results

Telehealth has been proven to be effective all over the world. In the long term, it can reduce mortality and emergency admission rates, according to a 2012 study published on The BMJ. In the short term, I have seen firsthand how it can make vast improvements to patients’ lives.

One story I can think of was about a woman who had diabetes and was getting four insulin shots a day. Thanks to telehealth, she’s now down to one and has a much better understanding of how to manage her illness. In essence, that is what telehealth is all about – giving patients the tools to monitor their conditions and seek further medical assistance when necessary. There is a cost saving element too, with telehealth patients are reducing the time and money spent travelling to doctor’s appointments and being awayfrom work, and also reducing their strain on the public health system.

The successful integration of telehealth into the mainstream delivery of care is something to aspire to, particularly in areas with rural communities. For instance, a diabetes nurse might travel for hours in a car to visit rural patients, but for many of those she visits patients won’t need immediate care and will simply have their vital signs checked. The nurse may get through as many as 18 people a day, whereas with telehealth, hundreds of people can be monitored per day with real-time data. This means the nurse only needs to visit these areas when someone needs immediate care, leading to better efficiency and cost savings.

The right systems

While DHBs are on the right track in dedicating staff and systems to telehealth, many of them are adapting existing IT technologies such as skype for medical and clinical purposes rather than implementing specialist products with specifically designed capabilities. Video conferencing as a supportive tool is undoubtedly useful, but without being combined with telemedical peripheral devices, tailored care software and clinically triaged care, patients and miss out on many of the benefits. Clinical monitoring of a patient’s vital signs provides continuing health trend data and is required in addition to video conferencing to give health professionals a clear history of symptoms and wellbeing.

In essence

Existing evidence shows that telehealth is a cost effective way of delivering more care to a greater number of people  more effectively and less expensively. We’re on track, but there are still steps to make to better the state of healthcare in New Zealand.

– Stephen Murray, General Manager New Zealand and Asia Pacific Business Development Manager

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