Three rural emergency departments could be linked via high-definition cameras to Waikato Hospital within three months.
The radical new plan for Taumarunui, Tokoroa and Te Kuiti hospitals will enable doctors at Waikato Hospital to give advice and support to their counterparts even in urgent situations.
The video link would be the first of three phases of "telehealth" which Waikato District Health Board plans to implement in the next year and beyond to combat problems recruiting and retaining doctors at rural Waikato hospitals.
The second phase involves teleconferencing to allow patients to go to a nurse at a rural hospital and consult a doctor in Hamilton via video cameras and ultra-fast broadband, removing the need for the patient to travel long distances.
Phase three focuses on telemonitoring, keeping patients with chronic diseases well in their own homes via mobile monitoring.
Health Waikato chief operating officer Jan Adams said the plan followed a successful model in rural New South Wales where two base hospitals of 180 and 200 beds each supported a network of 41 rural and remote health care facilities providing acute, trauma and mental health observations and diagnosis to local practitioners.
"They support a whole variety of 41 other hospitals and rural health centres and GP facilities by the use of technology," Mrs Adams said.
"So that's why we're quite interested in the static cameras and then access to video conferencing as a means of supporting these smaller communities."
Some urgent medical procedures had been performed on patients using the technology, Mrs Adams said.
A working party with Mrs Adams at the helm aimed to introduce cameras into the three emergency departments in three months.
Phase two would be introduced within six to 12 months, and phase three after one year.
At Waikato Hospital dermatologist Amanda Oakley has been using telehealth services for 17 years.
The department of dermatology uses interactive clinics and video conferencing, stores and forwards consultations for skin lesions, provides online courses for medical students and GPs, and offers online consumer health education in dermatology.
Using the technology was also a way of integrating primary and secondary healthcare in rural towns.
In Taumarunui one hospital and three medical centres catered for 13,000 people but it struggled to attract and retain doctors.
The situation in the town had deteriorated over several years to a point where the cost of locums, to cover the gaps, was ballooning.
Across the entire district locums in medical, nursing, allied health and management had cost Waikato DHB $6.4 million in the past year.
It had been working on a model of integrated health care which wouldbe presented to board members in October.By Natalie Akoorie Email Natalie