The first stage of the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) has brought faster internet connection and resulting benefits to a number of rural hospitals and family health centres around New Zealand.
One rural hospital included in that first RBI round a few years ago, Hokianga Hospital in the town of Rawene, recently connected to fibre-optic internet technology.
CEO of Hokianga Health Enterprise Trust, John Wigglesworth, says the connection has resulted in many benefits for the hospital.
“The technology improves data linkages between the hospital and its central GP clinic in Rawene with its nine primary health clinics situated in remote locations throughout the Hokianga. This data network means patients don’t have to remember details or repeat their medical history if they go to any of the clinical locations and medical staff don’t spend so much time re-gathering information that’s already available in the central database.
“It also allows us to use tele-medicine and video links to communicate in various ways such as holding virtual consultations with patients in remote areas and having shared on-screen consultations with remote staff and specialists which reduces the time and costs involved in travelling. In addition, we can engage in service planning and administration with DHBs and PHOs in the same way. The use of video- conferencing will help manage the issue of potential shortages in the rural health workforce too - for example those in under-staffed clinics could seek advice from colleagues or specialists using the technology, so physical signs displayed by a patient can be seen on screen.
“Other benefits include staff having the opportunity to participate in online clinical training sessions such as maintaining skills for emergency medicine or the safe use of new technologies, and being able to send digital x-rays to radiologists and specialists allowing instant diagnosis. In the past, we’ve had to rely on sending film x-rays via courier with delays in receiving a response.
“Additionally, having improved internet services available to parts of the community means people who are connected will be able to access their own health information via a patient portal. This means they will be able to check their lab results without having to phone their clinic, look up what vaccinations they’ve had and medications they’re taking, and review their medical history. The patient portal provides an opportunity to save everyone - patients, clinicians and administration staff - time. It also enables people to play a greater part in managing their own health care.”
Mr Wigglesworth says he’s keen to see further development of the internet and cellphone technologies made available in the remote clinics and communities of Hokianga which still don’t have access to high speed internet services or even cellphone reception at present.
Thirty-seven rural hospitals (including Hokianga Hospital) and integrated family health centres around New Zealand were identified for the provision of rural broadband in the first stage of the initiative. A survey in February this year shows 18 sites are now connected or were in the process of connecting.
Stage two of the RBI roll-out is now progressing, along with a Mobile Black Spot Fund which will improve the availability of mobile services in areas which don’t currently have coverage.
Mr Wigglesworth has been assisting internet service providers to develop local proposals for this second round of rural broadband with the aim of bringing fibre internet technology to the area’s more remote clinics.
“The goal is for our rural health services to have equitable access to the same digital technologies available to urban centres, technology which ultimately contributes to improving health care outcomes for all.”
Ministry of Health Acting Chief Technology & Digital Services Officer, Darren Douglass, says it’s great to see progress being made to ensure those living in more remote areas of the country have better connectivity enabling improved access to health services.
“Improved connectivity is an important foundation for using digital technology to achieve a key objective of helping people to have access to services, information and support closer to home.”