From having no doctor at all the South Taranaki town of Patea suddenly has two digital-based health centres - and one of them is free.

On Monday Ngāti Ruanui and Kaitaia's Dr Lance O'Sullivan joined forces to offer a free pop-up virtual medical centre in the Patea Māori Club building. At almost the same time the region's public health organisation (PHO) set up a Skype doctor service, using Taupo doctors.

Ngāti Ruanui kaiarataki Debbie Ngarewa-Packer estimates the Ruanui/O'Sullivan service will cost her iwi about $30,000 for four months - much cheaper than a conventional GP service. She thinks it will be the way of the future.

Patea's population is about 1500 and the Patea Medical Trust lost its last locum GP on July 3. Since then patients have had to travel to Hawera or Whanganui, or to the part-time GP service provided in Waverley by Te Oranganui Iwi Health Authority.


The lack of a Patea doctor put a lot of pressure on Ngāti Ruanui's Hawera GP service. Ngarewa-Packer approached trail-blazing Kaitaia GP O'Sullivan for help - help he was about to offer anyway.

She said she had earlier asked the PHO for help, but received nothing.

On Monday, after a powhiri, a combined O'Sullivan/Ruanui team got out their digital devices and set up shop. Newly trained digital health deputy Jeniveve Poari-Broughton, who lives in Patea, said the initiative is exciting.

"I'm a mum myself. I understand the struggles we have. We need something."

Ngarewa-Packer was there to see it happen.

"What's interesting is watching people's faces. There were more kaumātua than youth there, and they loved it. They love seeing new things."

On Monday the virtual health centre had 120 visitors, registering and asking for health advice. One or two had significant health problems and needed specialist input.

The three digital health deputies were armed with iPads and the MAiHEALTH app designed by O'Sullivan and his wife Tracy. They took down information, used the app to check temperatures and look in ears, took photos and sent a package to Kaitaia online.


In Kaitaia O'Sullivan has a tele health team with two years' experience in minor ailments such as skin infections and sore throats.

The tele team comes up with a diagnosis, checks it with O'Sullivan or the two GPs he employs, and the diagnosis comes back quickly. A pharmacy is alerted and the patient can pick up a script. The patient's GP is sent the information online.

The service can be offered from anywhere - a school or a caravan - Ngarewa-Packer said. Any tests are sent off to Hawera Hospital. Having the health centre take care of minor ailments will take pressure off GPs and Accident and Emergency departments.

Ngāti Ruanui will pay some of the costs, at least until after the election. O'Sullivan pays the tele health team and GPs.

He was present on Monday and left his operations manager Trevor Beatson and MAiHEALTH trainer Kody Peterson to mentor the new Ngāti Ruanui team.

Centre hours at the Patea Māori Club are 10am to 3pm Monday to Friday, with an extension to 7.30pm on Thursday. Saturday opening is a possibility for the future.


Ngarewa-Packer sees another plus for Patea. She said its young people will be exposed to new technology and envisage careers other than labouring.