Imagine you have cancer. You are sitting at home with your laptop, connected simultaneously by video to your GP, radiologist, surgeon, oncologist and a cancer specialist from Boston, who will come up with your combined care plan.
"Virtual clinics" are now a reality in New Zealand, with the launch of Gen-i's new service in November last year.
Jo-Ann Jacobson, health sector lead for the ICT services company, says Gen-i Virtual Clinic is the first secure, on-demand meeting service to come to market in New Zealand, and one of only a few worldwide.
It allows a range of health professionals from different locations to connect over video any time, almost anywhere from any video-enabled device such as a tablet.
So far the Cancer Network's central and southern branches have signed up for the cloud-based service. Trials are planned at the Waitemata and Bay of Plenty District Health Boards and Gen-i is in the process of bringing six central region DHBs over to the new technology.
The pilot at Waitemata DHB will address a workforce shortage in speech therapists by way of a Virtual Clinic for home-based stroke patients. High-definition video technology will mean therapists can actually see the patient's swallow function from their office, something that could previously only be done on home visits.
Jacobson says the patient-centred tool results in phenomenal productivity gains. "Because what we're talking about here are often vulnerable services. We have an aging, ailing population with chronic conditions. Specialist services are stretched and with funding caps the traditional means of operating is just not sustainable."
The model reduces travel costs and saves time by enabling healthcare providers to collaborate with each other and their patients in an interactive, life-like environment to make better quality decisions faster.
One of the challenges in enabling such technology has been the security of patient privacy. Virtual Clinic is hosted within a secure and private cloud-based environment, compliant with the Government's Connected Health standards on the transmission of patient data. Patients can access the service using software that provides security over the internet.
Funding is a challenge yet to be fully resolved. "The funding model for seeing patients virtually is something New Zealand is in a bit of a catch-up around," Jacobson says.
Though technology is no longer the obstacle, funding could be a barrier for clinicians. The service is available by monthly subscription. Though New Zealand has one of the world's most integrated health systems, policy and practice changes need to be made to fund the delivery of health care in the home, she says. Some Australian states are rolling out home devices for patients over 65 or with chronic conditions and offering subsidies to GPs for video-capable devices.
Another challenge is forming standard practice around how virtual teams are created and managed across multiple disciplines and providers.
Jacobson says Virtual Clinic being cloud based means there is no need to purchase and maintain expensive new hardware.
The service can be scaled up or down depending on demand and has the advantage of round the clock support nationwide.