A controversial new virtual health system at Waikato District Health Board has cost taxpayers almost $92,000 in staff travel to the United States for the project's initiation.

The travel was undertaken by DHB chief executive Dr Nigel Murray and board chairman Bob Simcock as well as five trips for managers, and four trips for clinical staff between November 2014 and April 2016.

SmartHealth, understood to have cost $15 million, is a virtual health system launched by the DHB late last year to enable patients to talk to a doctor or book appointments via their computer or smartphone.

It has been criticised by bosses at Pinnacle, the primary health care organisation for the Midlands region, who said SmartHealth was in direct competition with a similar service launched the same week by the region's 400 GPs.


SmartHealth has attracted 257 consultations since the launch in late November including 44 during the Christmas holiday period, where two doctors covered after hours on weekdays and weekends and four worked public holidays at a cost $150 per hour each.

A rebrand of the virtual health system from Virtual DHB to SmartHealth before it was launched cost another $35,000, according to the figures released to the Herald under the Official Information Act.

The figures showed Murray's travel costs to the US were $18,239, Simcock's $8655, managers $37,537 and clinical staff, $27,461.

SmartHealth is powered by HealthTap, an interactive health company based in the United States.

When asked why international travel was chosen over web meetings, the Waikato DHB's virtual care and innovation executive director Darrin Hackett said the travel was undertaken at the beginning of the project to establish "this significant IT deployment project".

He added there is now a standing web meeting between Waikato DHB and HealthTap staff four days a week.

Hackett said all travel was economy class. He would not provide the names or titles of the DHB managers and clinical staff who travelled to America for the project but said the purpose of their travel was for the "initial project start-up and preparation for clinical change management".

Simcock's travel was to "undertake due diligence and governance oversight of the project". Murray's reason for travel was not given.


Hackett would not release the strategic business case for the project presented to the board in July 2015.

However public excluded minutes from the meeting show the board raised several questions including whether legislative framework supported virtual health, proposed financial savings were realistic, and whether expenditure was prudent or affordable given the DHB's position at that time.

It was noted Murray and Simcock would make the final decision over committing to HealthTap.

The board approved a move toward virtual care, gave support to the chief executive to establish the service and affirmed his delegation powers to negotiate a contract with HealthTap.

It also asked for detailed reporting on the scope, benefits, cost, and risks associated with establishing and implementing the service including engaging with the Medical Council and doctors.

Public excluded minutes from another board meeting in October that year show a two-year agreement with HealthTap for its clinical service.

Hackett said a benefit analysis report would not be completed until the end of the two year trial, however two non-government organisations have already expressed an interest in running the out-of-hours service in SmartHealth, currently run by the DHB.

Labour MP Sue Moroney said the money was a lot to spend on an unproven project where the business case had not been publicly declared.

"In an environment where there has been underfunding of health services for the last eight years it's really important every single dollar in health is well-accounted for and it's hard to see how this makes good financial sense."