The health system will give patients and health workers access to more user-friendly Apps, ‘chatbots’ and video consultations as it works to cement technology gains made during the COVID-19 crisis.

Stella Ward is Chief Digital Officer at the Canterbury DHB and a Te Papa Hauora Advisory Council member.

She says the pandemic sped up planned technology programmes such as telehealth. It triggered the development of Apps to help staff and patients in the ever-changing COVID-19 situation. And an expected increase in demand for mental health services will call for more technology innovation to help people easily and quickly access care and information.

Ward says a number of consumer-focused Apps, for contact tracing and sharing information, were rapidly developed during the pandemic.

One example was the Āwhina App developed by the Ministry of Health to give health workers up-to-the-minute information on personal protective equipment, testing centres and alert levels. Ward says the Canterbury DHB will continue to use the App to share non-COVID health information with its workforce.

“The other change fast-tracked because of COVID was the use of telehealth, or virtual health. It was the same as in every industry – people were on Team or Zoom meetings. That was a phenomenal shift,’’ she says.

“Clinicians were seeing patients via Zoom or Teams as well as talking to them on the phone. We ran virtual ward rounds so health professionals could look at a patient’s records remotely. This meant patients got the best care but we limited the number of people in the environment.”

Multi-disciplinary care meetings, where specialists meet to devise patient plans, were done by Microsoft Team meeting.

Ward says the pandemic accelerated plans – and the DHB wants to maintain momentum.

“We had to deploy at speed programmes and ideas we were planning. For example, we had the Microsoft technology but instead of a staged roll-out, everyone started using it with support. Our clinicians needed to do diagnostic reviews and planning remotely so we had to get them secure access from home into the clinical systems.”

Ward says the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, has asked the DHB to ‘lock in data and digital gains made as part of the pandemic response’.

At Canterbury DHB clinicians can continue to collaborate by Team meeting and it is exploring the usefulness of Microsoft health applications. The DHB will increasingly offer patients the option of a video consultation.

Canterbury DHB is expecting an increase in demand for mental health services and is developing technology to help people get the right information and care.

“If the earthquakes and mosque attacks taught us anything, we are going to see a different demand for services as people reflect and perhaps have difficulty coping with the economic or other impacts of the pandemic. We are looking at technology that gives people more information before they come into the health system to streamline their care. A ‘chatbot’, which allows people to ask and answer questions, will point them towards a particular service or source of information. This interactive technology is really new and will be publicised in coming months.”

Ward says safeguarding patients’ private information is a priority for the DHB.

“The information we hold is very private so while we want to improve ease of use and access we don’t want to breach patient privacy. Investing in security is an important part of our technology plans.”

Ward says technology is an enabler – not a substitute for good care and processes.

“We always look at new technologies critically. How does it speed up diagnosis, how does it improve the experience of care for the patient and the experience of work for the clinician? We don’t just introduce technology because it is cool, but because it helps us make a positive difference to people’s health and wellbeing.”