NZ Herald: NZ’s healthcare system needs a major technology upgrade

Originally published by the NZ Herald 06/12/2023

Following the previous government spending nearly $71 billion on its Covid response – a figure significant even by international standards – it’s disheartening this colossal investment has not led to tangible improvements in our hospital system.

This reality hit home for me on an otherwise typical Tuesday morning. Amid a flurry of work meetings, a phone call from my daughter’s school abruptly shifted my focus from the professional to the personal. A playground fall and a broken arm resulted in a trip to the emergency department and a first-hand experience of the system. As I worked through the options regarding picking her up, I opted against calling an ambulance to avoid overburdening emergency services, deciding instead to drive her to Starship Hospital.

As we arrived, the difficulty of navigating the crowded parking area was just the first of many challenges. The initial struggle to even bring her safely into the emergency department (ED) was a precursor to the systemic inefficiencies in a system that is no longer fit for purpose. Following an X-ray which confirmed the need for a temporary cast and subsequent surgery, we faced a lengthy wait.

The postponement of the cast application process until the late afternoon was due to a shortage of available resources and personnel.

Despite low expectations for surgery to be performed that same evening, my daughter was kept fasting into the early evening in case a slot became available. Regrettably, the surgery did not go ahead. In today’s era, where technological advancements have transformed every aspect of our lives, it’s reasonable to expect that healthcare systems should also embody this progress.

The lengthy delays and uncertainties experienced in the system underscore the pressing need for a healthcare system that leverages technology to enhance efficiency and patient care. The glaring lack of technology at Starship was strikingly apparent, with staff members relying heavily on paper records and hand-written notes.

This outdated approach led to repetitive information exchanges and underscored the critical need for more efficient, modern systems. It was clear the staff, despite their best efforts, were constrained by a system that has not kept pace with technological advancements, leaving them to tirelessly work around its limitations. In a modern hospital system, we should see seamless integration of technology in everyday operations.

This would include the use of electronic health records as a standard practice, eliminating the outdated paper-based system. Implementing this transition is vital not only for minimising human errors, but also for enabling swift and precise communication among healthcare professionals.

Proper utilisation would lead to improved health outcomes and enhanced productivity. This approach is essential in reducing waiting times and elevating the standard of patient care to meet expectations. Not to mention the opportunities that arise from today’s technology – advanced triage systems, powered by AI, should be able to prioritise cases more effectively, ensuring timely treatment. Automated scheduling systems for surgery can prevent prolonged delay, while telemedicine for post-operative care should offer an avenue for earlier discharge.

The lack of a digital system was starkly evident when a visiting doctor friend was horrified to find my daughter had been receiving medication for the past 30 hours without an admittance bracelet – a basic yet crucial lapse in protocol.

In our daughter’s case, the reliance on a paper-based system led to a chaotic rush of last-minute surgery preparations, further exacerbating inefficiencies. This situation starkly demonstrated the necessity for a more streamlined and technologically advanced system.

Speaking to a senior health official from overseas, they compared our hospital infrastructure to that found in developing countries, a remark that resonates with our experiences. It’s clear there’s an urgent need for a healthcare system that embraces technology in tandem with the expertise of our hard-working healthcare professionals. As we were leaving the hospital, a nurse diligently verified my contact details.

She mentioned the common occurrence of errors when transcribing information from hand-written notes to their digital system. Skimming the form, I wasn’t surprised to notice an error in my phone number, a critical detail for next week’s follow-up appointment.

This minor but important mistake highlighted a larger concern: the importance of enabling patients to input and update their own details wherever feasible. A world-class hospital system, bolstered by advanced technology, is crucial for more than just efficiency; it’s fundamental to delivering the care and respect every patient deserves. In addition, technological integration is also vital for supporting our clinicians, who are at the centre of a healthy population.

Amid the backdrop of a pandemic that cost our nation nearly $71b, our healthcare professionals, the unsung heroes, remain underappreciated and are saddled with an undeniably obsolete system. Following our daughter’s extended hospital stay, which incurred substantial taxpayer expense, I am hopeful about the new Government’s vision to improve healthcare spending.

The commitment to modernising the system is evident in initiatives like revising Pharmac’s decision-making model to better reflect patient perspectives, mandating the Ministry of Health to regularly publish a Medicines Strategy, and expediting Medsafe’s pharmaceutical approvals.

This marks a pivotal move towards a patient-centric, strategically enhanced healthcare system, presenting the Government with a golden chance to create a lasting, positive legacy. However, it’s crucial this transformation also embraces technological advancements.

Now more than ever, it is essential to upgrade our technological infrastructure to reflect the commitment and expertise of our invaluable healthcare workers. We must dedicate ourselves to equipping them with the advanced tools and support they truly deserve, ensuring they can deliver the best possible care.

Cecilia Robinson is a founder and co-CEO of primary care provider Tend Health.