Industry View: Virtual healthcare has key role in reducing pandemic risk

Industry view – Scott Arrol

19 March 2020

In a press release last week I highlighted that virtual healthcare should be playing a big part in reducing the risks of major global issues such as the current corona virus pandemic (COVID-19). 

This is in addition to the need for virtual healthcare to become embedded in our health sector as part of ‘business as usual’ delivering care across the continuum of health, disability, mental health and addictions.  We’re also now witnessing how important it is for the health workforce to be supported to work more remotely to aid effectiveness and efficiency, especially when the system is under so much pressure.

Unfortunately,New Zealand has not yet widely adopted virtual healthcare throughout the country, apart from the national telehealth service that is currently handling the bulk of direct inquiries and responses to COVID-19, and increasingly being over-loaded by the demand for information and support. 

NZ Health IT (NZHIT) commends the fantastic efforts of the Healthline and the incredible response being seen right across the health sector.  This includes the primary care sector’s response, including those general practices who are using the healthcare home model to support their patients, staff and communities.   

These, and a small number of other GP practices, are offering patients the option to have virtual consultations conducted online although the lack of an established operating model is hampering the uptake. Most patients are being directed to undertake an initial phone triage process or call the Healthline in the first instance.  This is understandable under the circumstances but has to be dovetailed with the ability to provide virtual consultations that have the added advantage of being able to see the patient albeit remotely, which is better than not at all.

A“virtual pathway” can begin with an app-based chatbot doing initial triaging and providing key information, then an option of a telephone or video consult that might result in a physical consultation or the patient being channelled to an alternative level of support depending on their circumstances.

The government must give urgency to changes to funding models and incentives that will enable GP’s to offer virtual healthcare services to patients at no cost,whilst also support existing or new service offerings to be available that are outside of the traditional doctor’s clinic model. Innovative ways of managing the current situation have to be embraced and health professionals willing to make these changes are to be encouraged and incentivised to do so.

This is not only a government and public sector problem to solve as the digital health industry sector is able to work collaboratively on solutions to help manage the demand on the system and its people. Last week I mentioned a couple of examples in Healthpoint’s web-based information service and Vensa’s mass text messaging solution, both having been ramped up to provide immediate assistance.

Last week we also saw Orion Health’s announcement about their corona virus outbreak solution with core functionality that includes the ability to remotely monitor and engage patients in their homes. Another example is the ManageMyHealth patient portal where GP’s are already able to offer access to planned or unplanned virtual consultations.  

Building these types of solutions into a virtual pathway that also includes chatbot and AI enabled apps, which can also provide location tracking and geo-fencing capabilities, can greatly assist in identifying individuals and areas most at real risk whilst also channelling specific support to reduce stress on the worried well.  There is essentially no need to start from scratch and build digital solutions when existing systems are already available or can be quickly repurposed to meet a specific purpose.

Technology is not a constraint to meeting the Covid-19 pandemic head-on but there does have to be rapid changes made to funding and business models that will support a dramatic increase in providing virtual healthcare services whilst also making sure clinical delivery remains the highest priority.

For example, it will be very difficult for a GP practice to suddenly pivot from an established business model where all patients walk in the door to receive care to one where 50% or more can be managed in a virtual manner.  

However,there are serious ramifications if this doesn’t happen, so those practices willing to make the change have to be incentivised appropriately for making the effort, whilst their patients should not be penalised by having to pay for an online consultation.  

Innovation will flow from reducing financial barriers and this will also flow in to producing long-term benefits for the health and wellbeing of everyone living in New Zealand.

Scott Arrol is the CEO of New Zealand Health IT (NZHIT)

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Anna Arrol

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