COVID-19 fast-tracked plans for health workers to do ‘virtual home visits’ by telephone or video link, and is speeding-up initiatives to help people stay fit and well in the community.
Dr Ben Hudson is Head of General Practice at the University of Otago, Christchurch and a Pegasus Health board member.

“A key learning from the COVID situation is that we can successfully do remotely a lot of consultations we thought we should do face-to-face. Phone consulting will become a more well-established way of accessing care, and video consults to a lesser extent. There are potentially significant benefits in this more flexible way of working because patients won’t have to always travel to the practice or take time off work or find childcare.”

Hudson says the pandemic accelerated talks, locally and nationally, about how to make primary care more user-friendly, such as adapting a ‘one-stop-healthcare-shop’ model.

“There are a few key changes we are trying to implement. One is doing more work remotely. The other is better using the skills of the whole primary care team. Where patients could best have their needs met by a nurse or pharmacy appointment we should be facilitating this through a primary care team,’’ he says.

“A slightly longer-term vision is to have a range of health professionals on site so a GP can refer people to the most appropriate one straight away. An extension of this vision would see patients being interviewed about their needs first and put in touch with the most relevant health professional. This means people may not always need to see a GP, as they do now, if they want to access many other health services.”

Hudson says the recently-released Health and Disability System Review will mean more change for the way healthcare is provided New Zealand. The Government will likely decide after the election what recommendations to adopt from the wide-ranging document.

Jacqui Lunday Johnstone is executive director of allied health at the Canterbury DHB. Allied health workers are not doctors, nurses or dentists, but professionals such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists and psychologists who provide expert and ongoing care.

She says the disruption and upheaval of COVID-19 forced people in the health sector to think quickly and creatively. “It (the pandemic) shattered a few myths, one being that people, especially older New Zealanders, wouldn’t want to use technology for healthcare. We were able to do 75% of our scheduled consultations during lock-down, largely through technology, and are looking at how we continue to offer these options particularly for follow-up consultations instead of requiring people to come into the clinical environment, which can be difficult for some families and whanau.”

She says COVID highlighted the importance of health and an individual’s role in protecting theirs. “As a nation we focused on a common goal of staying healthy and each doing our bit. We need to keep this attitude up, and the health system needs to give people the information and services they need to stay well.”

One such initiative is the LifeCurve App from the UK Innovation Centre for Aging. The App, that is currently being redeveloped to suit the New Zealand cultural context, helps give people practical, individualised ways of slowing or reversing the process of becoming frail. “It is a myth that becoming frail is inevitable as we age. With the right advice and simple actions, we can all retain our function and the ability to look after ourselves.” Lunday Johnstone says the DHB is in the early stages of a project that will use the skills and networks of organisations such as Grey Power, Age Concern, and Te Papa Hauora /Health Precinct partners to study and share the App.