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Rise of the virtual doctor

This story was originally published on nzherald.co.nz

An Auckland-based healthcare group says the Covid-19 pandemic is a factor behind a surge in the number of patients booking online consultations with its team of doctors.

Steffan Crausaz, CEO of Tāmaki Health, says the group is conducting up to 400 online consultations a week through its new virtual platform Bettr, a number it reached in the first 10 weeks following the platform's launch in July.

"We thought it would, in normal times, take us two years to reach that figure," Crausaz says. "But Covid-19 has certainly been a factor in accelerating demand."

Crausaz says Bettr is New Zealand's first purpose-built virtual health platform. With consultations able to be conducted by video or smartphone from the privacy of a person's home, he believes it signals where healthcare in New Zealand is heading.

"I think we have lagged behind many other sectors more familiar with using online platforms, but technology is enabling us to move to a new-age in delivery options. We need to be part of that and the response we've had clearly indicates the New Zealand public is ready for it.

"There are many health concerns that can be addressed remotely but it will never eliminate the need for face-to-face consultations," he says. Bettr is a complementary service (to physical appointments) and people can be reassured patient notes are securely stored and that we have the expertise and equipment to handle situations needing to be dealt with in-clinic by doctors."

Tāmaki Health is New Zealand's largest independent primary healthcare group and runs a network of about 300 doctors in 48 clinics operating mostly under the Local Doctors and White Cross brands. Most days at least 150 doctors are available for appointments.

Most of the clinics are in Auckland, but the group also has a presence in Christchurch, Whangarei and Palmerston North. Around 275,000 people are on its patient register.

Bettr in action with Dr Angela Zhang. Photo / Supplied.
Bettr in action with Dr Angela Zhang.

However Crausaz says Kiwis can book appointments on Bettr no matter where they live. Patients in remote parts of the country now have the ability to access medical advice without having to journey out of their town or wait for a doctor to visit.

"This is particularly suitable for one-off appointments, but if patients need ongoing medical care they have got to have access to local services."

One patient who has used Bettr is Dwayne Vemoa who lives in Tolaga Bay, a township about a 45 minute drive from Gisborne on the East Coast.

He says he has access to a doctor in his town only a few times a week and appointments can be difficult to secure. "Personally it (Bettr) will mean I'll have to make fewer trips for things like repeat prescriptions or to ask important medical questions."

Crausaz says every patient is asked for feedback after an online appointment and this has been overwhelmingly positive. Many have expressed surprise at the ease of accessing the platform - and how doctors build rapport and quickly get to the heart of the matter.

He says Bettr demonstrates the company's commitment to improving the delivery of healthcare in New Zealand.

"It is secure, easy to use and affordable," he says. "It is also about ensuring better access for all so no one has a reason to put off important conversations with their doctor."

Crausaz says Tāmaki Health's staff upskilled to get comfortable with the platform, a task made easier because the group's existing IT system is the same as that being used for Bettr.

Through Bettr patients book a 10 minute slot for a private consultation. The platform is available seven days between 8am – 8pm although the hours are expected to increase as demands rises.

Initial appointment prices start at $10 for Local Doctor and White Cross registered patients. Non-registered patients are charged $49 and children under 14 are free.

Same day appointments are generally available and all patients are triaged (assessed for urgency) prior to their appointments to determine whether their care needs mean they should be seen in person immediately.

For more information on Bettr visit: www.bettr.co.nz