In a rapidly-changing world, advances in health technology are steadily being incorporated into the practice of medicine. Patient care, hospital treatments and remote healthcare provision have all been enriched by systems, designs and innovations that only a short while back may have been considered the stuff of science fiction. Hospitals in New Zealand have switched from paper-based to electronic systems, including the allocation of patient barcodes to match blood and IV batches, which provide patient protection from mismedication errors. Doctors can access clinical information via their smartphones as opposed to spending hours searching through catalogues and books at a medical library. And laparoscopic and robotic surgery, MRIs and bionic limbs are no longer terms that make us widen our eyes in wonder.
One method of healthcare which is becoming more commonplace is ‘telehealth’; a mode of harnessing modern technology to allow clinical health provision via video-conferencing, telemonitoring and electronic clinical information sharing. Telehealth is increasingly in daily use in many countries, particularly those with rural or remote populations. Also called ‘telemedicine’ or, in Europe and the UK, ‘e-health’, these terms relate to same idea; providing ways for doctors to evaluate, diagnose, treat and care for patients from a distance.
The New Zealand health system, not unlike many other countries, is facing challenges that relate to an increasingly aging population, the difficulty of providing health services to remote locations and the need to ensure equity of healthcare access to all citizens. Recognising telehealth as a logical extension of established healthcare provision, in June 2011 the Ministry of Health created the New Zealand Telehealth Forum. Some of the responsibilities tasked to the NZ Telehealth Forum include identifying and promoting telehealth services, understanding issues and barriers to adoption, endorsing specific initiatives and emerging models of care and connecting with international healthcare organisations, in order to share learnings and expertise. The NZ Telehealth Forum also hosts a comprehensive online resource centre.
According to the resource centre, three key areas of telehealth in NZ are:
- Telemedicine; which covers aspects of telehealth as mentioned above like video-conferencing, and further, includes ‘store and forward’. Store and forward concerns the collection and electronic sending of clinical information, perhaps to another site or for evaluation by an expert consultant. The site describes information in this context as typically consisting of “demographic data, medical history, lab report as well as image, video and/or sound files”.
- Telemonitoring; which covers remotely collecting patient data over time and the sending of such data.
- Mobile Health (mHealth); which covers the use of mobile communications technology, such as smartphones or tablets, and harnessing them in a way that supports lifestyle programmes, health apps, to connect with patients or to send health information.
There is some concern, particularly as regulations remain absent or vague in this area, that the potential exists for private health information to be lost or misdirected. There is also an argument that decreased human interaction may increase risk of medical error. However, for those patients who may be infectious, house-bound or who feel uncomfortable visiting a surgery, remote healthcare provides a welcome option. Although there is no substitute for the trust that exists between doctor and patient, Kiwis should expect to see health technology become increasingly commonplace in New Zealand.
If you’d like to talk more about telehealth or medical placements in New Zealand, our consultants would love to hear from you!