Thursday, February 22, 2024

Telehealth service is a start, not a solution

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Political parties need to make good on election promises about better rural health care, writes Craig Page.
Another focus is to provide more preventative health interventions, such as screening, and to promote health and wellbeing.
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On the face of it, the new rural after-hours telehealth service unveiled last week is a win for those living in our most isolated communities.

But questions remain – for instance, whether the initiative is just a Band-Aid for the gaping wound that is New Zealand’s rural health service.

Te Whatu Ora and Te Aka Whai Ora last week trumpeted the new service, which provides after-hours health care over the phone, saying it will improve access to primary health care for almost 900,000 New Zealanders. 

Rural communities can access the service by calling an 0800 number or by being referred from their healthcare provider. It provides after-hours clinical telehealth care (5pm-8am) on weekdays, and 24 hours a day on weekends and public holidays. The service is staffed by kaiāwhina, nurses, GPs and emergency medicine specialists. 

But discussing health complaints over the telephone is surely the poor cousin when it comes to health care.

There is no substitute for meeting a health professional face to face and talking over, or presenting, any issues you might be experiencing.  

This year Farmers Weekly has highlighted the significant chasm between health services in rural parts of NZ and those in the main centres.

The Te Pae Tata (Interim New Zealand Health Plan) released earlier this year identified health care in rural communities as a priority. 

Part of the problem is finding staff to work in rural areas. A report released by Hauora Taiwhenua Rural Health Network showed rural medical practices had vacancies for about 150 doctors, with two-thirds of those positions being unfilled for 12 months or more.  

Gill Naylor, the president of Rural Women NZ, described the workload facing rural general practitioners and midwives in particular as dire and said the two biggest issues facing rural health are workforce capacity and equity of access to services.

She believed attracting medical professionals to rural areas and retaining them requires a package suited to the whole family, including schools, services and lifestyle.

This newspaper  questioned political parties in the lead-up to October’s election about what they would do to improve rural health, including mental health services, if elected. All conceded those living in rural area were not getting the health service they deserved and, as political parties do in the lead-up to an election, they vowed to address it.

National said it would build a third medical school with a focus on rural health and primary care and ACT said it would aim to deliver on the Rural Health Strategy, which it proposed, to ensure greater access to health care. NZ First said it would attract new graduates to provincial areas with a bonding scheme that would see them have their student loans written off over five years’ service.  It would also make taking up health workforce jobs in provincial areas a targeted priority for immigration settings. 

Once the new government has formed and the dust has settled, National, ACT and NZ First need to commit to addressing rural health.

The teleservice is a start, but more work is needed to ensure rural people get the health service they deserve, and pay for.

In Focus: 24/7 healthcare comes to rural NZ, here’s why it matters

A new dedicated rural after-hours telehealth service has launched, providing access to medical advice and diagnosis for almost 900,000 New Zealanders.

Bryan talks with Ka Ora clinical director Dr Emma Calvert about the service.

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