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Afterhours Rural Telehealth Service to Assist Rural General Practices

Te Whatu Ora is establishing a bespoke Rural Telehealth Services (RTHS) to alleviate the pressures on rural general practices and enhance rural community access to primary care services. 

Over the last few months Marie Daly, GM Advocacy has been working with a team from Te Whatu Ora on a project to implement a Rural Telehealth Service (RTHS).

The service aims to alleviate some of the pressure that on call rosters place on rural general practices and for many rural communities, improve access to afterhours services. Rural General Practices will be able to connect to the service at no cost to them and most patients will be able to use the service at the same cost as they pay to see their own doctor during the day time.

The conversation around this topic began during the workshop held with Te Whatu Ora on 28 June 2022 during which Te Whatu Ora took the opportunity to discuss the rural component of the interim NZ Health Plan and explore priorities for a RTHS with the 80 rural health experts who participated. The service will have an annual budget of $4 million starting this year.

Beyond the workshop, the team has continued to consult with the key stakeholders including St John, ACC, PHOs, Te Whatu Ora Data and Digital Team, and telehealth service providers. Most importantly, they have talked with rural general practices and rural hospitals whose contributions have been vital in identifying key issues and details that have to be considered by this service.

They recognise that many rural communities face real difficulties getting appointments during in-clinic hours and have limited access to afterhours services. These factors can exacerbate pressure on hospital Emergency Departments and calls to St John.

Many rural general practices deliver afterhours services in conjunction with a PRIME contract which then dictates the need for 24/7 in-person rosters that are increasingly both clinically and financially unviable. While the RTHS won’t take away the need to have a clinician who can attend a call in person, the team is optimistic it will significantly reduce the frequency of this.

From their consultation, it became clear that while there are many opportunities for telehealth service models to enhance rural communities access to health and specialist services, the immediate priority is to reduce the impact that relentless afterhours rosters have on rural general practice teams.

While the details are still being developed, key components of the RTHS afterhours service include:

  • Telehealth nurse triage that links patients back to their general practice and the services that are available in their area
  • GP Consultations in which patients can use either voice only or voice and video systems to talk with the doctor. They will be able to have a prescription sent to their local pharmacy, have lab tests organised and appointments booked into their own GP service.
  • An integrated booking system that will connect the patient, the Telehealth Nurse Triage, GP Consultation, and the general practice.

Technology wizards are working rapidly to join the software systems behind these service components together so that patients, participating rural general practices, and telehealth service staff have a service that is easy to use and can be relied on.

A Go Live date and details of how rural general practices connect to the service will be announced in the next week or two.