RON EMERSON discusses the increasing role that telehealth will play in New Zealand’s healthcare system.

When it comes to a vision for the future of healthcare, it is clear that organisations and governments are recognising the need for many changes in the way we care for patients. At the heart of healthcare reforms lies the need for massive improvements in productivity and efficiency, in light of challenges such as physician shortages, delivering healthcare to rural populations, rapidly ageing societies, and unnecessary expenditures.

Studies show that better care coordination and reducing avoidable hospitalisation results in better clinical outcomes for patients, thereby reducing costs. There is also renewed focus on prevention and wellness programmes to reduce hospitalisations and a shift towards more patient-centred care models. This would rely heavily on such factors as changing patient behaviour through better education and awareness, and treating patients at the point of care (such as their homes or local community centres).

Within New Zealand, the Productivity Commission is currently undertaking an inquiry into improving outcomes for New Zealanders from social services including healthcare. Currently, the Government spends around $34 billion a year on social services, but agencies can be unclear about what that investment is achieving. This inquiry seeks to find out what the public, not-for-profit and private sectors can learn from each other, and how government agencies and service providers can coordinate social services more effectively.

So what does this mean for the state of healthcare in the decade to come? For a start, changes in mindset and strategic objectives are becoming evident, as healthcare organisations focus on three main areas to increase efficiency and reduce costs:

  1. How to keep in contact
  2. How to keep people healthy
  3. How to keep chronic disease from quickly turning into an acute episode (and thereby reduce hospitalisation and treatment costs).

Distance technology for healthcare – particularly the growth of telehealth – has offered opportunities to realise these new models of care delivery. Telehealth is the electronic exchange of medical information – this could mean something as simple as sharing a photo of a lesion, to viewing a patient’s blood pressure status or accessing a patient’s complete medical history. The growth statistics for telehealth are staggering: market research firm IHS predicts the U.S. telehealth market will grow from $240 million in 2013 to $1.9 billion by 2018, representing an annual growth of 56 per cent.

According to IDC Health, New Zealand healthcare IT spending shows the most mature pattern in the Asia/Pacific region. IDC Health states that 2013 ICT spending by the healthcare sector in New Zealand was estimated to be US$156.8 million, a modest growth of two per cent over the previous year’s estimates. By 2018, IDC Health Insights forecasts that healthcare ICT spending will reach US$183.1 million and top priorities for healthcare IT executives appear to be upgrading technology and introducing newer technologies such as mobility.

There is also an increasing shift towards homecare and remote patient monitoring (outside hospitals, clinics, and rest homes), to deliver effective healthcare services with reduced expenditure.

Statistics show that three million patients worldwide are already receiving professional care by being connected to home medical monitoring devices; this number is expected to grow to 19.1 million patients around the world by 2018. A greater emphasis is also now being placed on population health management, focusing on preventing problems before they develop for better clinical and patient outcomes and more cost-effective delivery of care.

The New Zealand Government recently commenced the procurement process to develop an integrated national telehealth service, scheduled for launch on 1 July, 2015. This will be a much-needed game changer and we should expect to see a continued shift towards more widespread telehealth deployments.

Video-Enabled Care Delivery

Video collaboration technology and telehealth are effective tools in shaping these new care delivery models. In addition to traditional doctor-patient consultations, video technology enables face-to-face collaboration across the whole spectrum of stakeholders – between doctors and hospitals, patients, their families and consultants, and other supporting professionals – independent of physical barriers.

Fundamental to any technology deployment in healthcare is that quality of care is not compromised. There is now a broad range of technology delivering customised solutions for patient examinations that support multidisciplinary healthcare delivery. This means that with high definition visuals, bespoke accessories on telemedicine carts, or remote patient monitoring capabilities on mobile devices, clinical workflow becomes much more efficient and collaboration happens naturally – without the barriers of distance and accessibility.


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