Telehealth benefits undermined: experts

Benefits which telehealth could provide South Islanders are being undermined by an uncoordinated approach and poor monitoring of how services are used, a new region-wide strategy says.

Telehealth — using audio and audiovisual technology to treat patients remotely — was a small but growing field, and more care was needed so that healthcare was provided effectively and efficiently, the strategy — signed off by the South Island Alliance of district health boards just before Christmas — said.

‘‘The service is expensive for DHBs to provide and limited when it comes to being able to offer care to patients at home.’’

Greater use of telehealth is an important aspect of the Southern District Health Board/WellSouth primary and community care strategy, and is seen as an important tool for managing patient care across New Zealand’s largest DHB.

SDHB paediatrician Ben Wheeler and WellSouth IT specialist Kyle Forde were among the nine-strong members of the working group which wrote the strategy.

The alliance said it wanted to increase the availability and use of telehealth to the point where it was offered to everyone who could benefit from it.

Currently, services had developed in a ‘‘relatively ad hoc fashion’’ across the South Island, creating serious IT issues, the strategy said.

‘‘Over time a multi-vendor environment has developed, which has created significant problems with interconnectivity across networks, even within the same DHB.

‘‘These problems persist despite attempts at local and national levels to find a solution.’’

The strategy recommended a co-ordinated South Island approach to updating the telehealth system, and ensuring that existing computer systems were able to work together, led by a newly appointed regional telehealth project manager.

Staff in all DHBs needed to be trained in how to use telehealth properly, and encouraged to overcome ‘‘personal and cultural barriers’’ which might prevent telehealth becoming a usual part of healthcare, the strategy said.

There was no monitoring system to measure telehealth usage or capability and that needed to be addressed, it said.

‘‘Any new telehealth service developed should be encouraged to proactively evaluate their service as it is implemented, including the patient, carer, and clinician experience.

‘‘Tools to carry out this evaluation, including support for the conduction of formal research projects should be available.’’

Proper funding also needed to be allocated to telehealth, despite the deficit problems faced by all DHBs, the strategy said.

‘‘While the options to deliver telehealth within existing funds improve the efficient delivery of healthcare at a time and place that is most convenient for the patient, there will be costs.

‘‘While there will be efficiencies within the system as a whole and savings in the cost of patient travel, the DHBs would need to be committed to the sustainable allocation of resources and future investment.’’

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

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