Dr Lance O'Sullivan is sure the ground-breaking MAiPOD health service he has developed in partnership with Huawei will help usher in a new era of accessible, affordable online health care.
A MAiPOD is essentially a 40-foot shipping container, fitted out like a doctor's clinic but with powerful, cloud-based digital health channels. It is designed to bring free healthcare to areas of New Zealand where such care is either not available or not affordable – so the MAiPOD can be loaded on the back of a truck and taken where it is most needed.
O'Sullivan, named 2014 New Zealander of the Year for his work in bringing health programmes to disadvantaged areas of the country, has long espoused digital healthcare.
In 2017, he set up MaiHealth, using virtualisation to bring health services to towns without doctors.
MAiPODs are an extension of that – with Huawei providing the high-speed connectivity and the expertise to bring in sensors, cloud and artificial intelligence that power the digital medical equipment, laptops and mobile devices inside. The technology allows staff to retrieve and update patients' medical records in the cloud, as well as enabling virtual medical consultations in real time.
The prototype MAiPOD is based around Kaitaia, put into active operation as a test centre during the most critical period of New Zealand's battle against Covid-19 – picking up tests and ensuring the virus did not spread further. O'Sullivan estimates about 800 people have used the free service so far but many more have come back for repeat visits and consultations online.
Huawei's head of technology, Michael Chan, says ICT has an important role to play in providing good healthcare and making it sustainably affordable: "It can bridge the gap of a lack of medical equipment as well as a lack of medical professionals in lower socio-economic areas of New Zealand. It means online registration, consultations and analysing and sharing medical records can be done easily, securely and accurately."
O'Sullivan is hopeful more MAiPODs will be rolled out around New Zealand – and says a proposal including MAiPODs is in front of the Counties-Manukau DHB to help fund and improve health services to those who most need it or who can't access it.
"I'm hopeful that we will be able to access some kind of innovation funding," he says, "as there are areas like South Auckland where this kind of service clearly has relevance."
O'Sullivan says there has to be a change in the funding model, "because the current model isn't working or, at least, doesn't work for everyone in the community – and I have been advocating and building online health services for a long time, eight years or more."
MAiPOD services were free, he says, because he didn't want to set it up "as just another GP practice. I'll forever be committed to looking after populations historically underserved with healthcare or who are not getting access to care – that's what gets me out of bed in the morning.
"Online health services are exploding globally and in New Zealand and it is satisfying to see it coming of age," says O'Sullivan. "But it needs to – change has to happen. Some people, many people, are unable to see a doctor in their area or can't afford the prescription."
He has estimated in the past that 200,000 Kiwi kids can't get to see a doctor when they need one every year and almost 50,000 kids can't afford prescriptions – with some ending up in hospital. Simple health technology can change that, he says.
"We have to get the authorities to relax archaic rules, like the one that says you can only treat someone in person. Well, for years I have been treating people without being in the same room – through smartphones, Facebook, Messenger or whatever.
"The old model is fading and there is no reason why we can't have healthcare online just as we now do online banking, online grocery shopping and more. Covid-19 has actually played a role in helping that happen."
Huawei NZ Deputy Managing Director Andrew Bowater says: "We've been proud to partner with Lance on this – the MAiPOD is filling a crucial need and we're hoping to roll this out across New Zealand. As MAiPOD reaches scale, new digital capabilities and services can be expanded to democratise healthcare.
Asked if the cost of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices might block online health care for disadvantaged people, O'Sullivan does not think so: "These devices are pretty ubiquitous these days; people's phones are as much a part of their lives as water and power.
"Even if there are socio-economic factors, people are highly resourceful. I have seen homeless people sitting outside fast food restaurants with their phones, using the free Wi-Fi, even if they can't afford the coffee inside.
"In the digital age, it is becoming less likely people will be isolated from others. There might be a few internet access problems – but we have to push for free connection to become an essential service, just like health and education."