Helpline services for smokers, gamblers and other groups are being merged into a new national "telehealth" service - possibly with a simple 111-style number.

The Ministry of Health is expected to issue a request for proposals for the new service in the next few days to integrate the current dedicated lines for smoking, gambling, alcohol, drugs, depression and poisons with the existing Healthline, where registered nurses provide free phone advice on any health condition.

The new system is expected to cut health costs by diverting more people to general practitioners, or helping them to help themselves, rather than calling an ambulance or turning up at hospital emergency departments.

But the non-government agencies that run the existing helplines are worried that the upheaval could add an extra step before callers reach the specialist services they need.


It also threatens the jobs of the existing 50 to 60 staff at Lifeline in Auckland that operate the depression and gambling helplines, 59 at Quitline in Wellington, 15 at the alcohol and drug line in Christchurch and eight at the National Poisons Centre in Dunedin.

The biggest existing service, Healthline, operated by a subsidiary of the Australian state-owned health insurer Medibank, employs more than 100 people on the helpline service, some in a Wellington call centre and some registered nurses working from home around the country.

Lifeline chief executive Jo Denvir said Lifeline would bid for the new service but expected stiff competition from Medibank and others. There were 32 responses to an initial request for information last year and the ministry met with 19 organisations.

The ministry initially planned to include the Immunisation Advisory Centre in the new service, but centre director Dr Nikki Turner said officials had agreed to let health professionals keep ringing the centre directly, although public calls may be directed through the new number.

Dr Marewa Glover of Auckland University's Tobacco Control Research Centre said an advantage of the new service was that it would probably run 24 hours a day, but a disadvantage would be adding an extra step to reach help.

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