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Free access to digital health sites trialled

New Zealanders will be able to visit some digital health websites for free as part of a three-month trial run by the Ministry of Health, Health Promotion Agency and WellSouth.

Three telecommunications companies – Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees – are involved in the proof of concept to provide zero-rated data for three websites run by the Health Promotion Agency and two patient portals used in the southern region, starting on 1 May 2019.

Darren Douglass, Ministry of Health group manager digital strategy and investment, says key metrics around data volumes and usage will be measured with the aim of improving access to health services, particularly for people in low socio-economic groups.

If the pilot is successful, the Ministry aims to create a framework agreement with the telecommunications providers that allows specific digital health services to quality for zero-rated data.

The Ministry would negotiate data charges and be the gate-keeper of the white list of websites and agencies wanting to take advantage of the agreement would have to justify and fund the data costs for their customers, says Douglass.

In the south, people will have free access to two patient portals, ConnectMed and ManageMyHealth.

WellSouth primary health network chief information officer Kyle Ford says that while most people in low socio-economic groups have access to smartphones, very few have data to use the internet.

The proof of concept is focused on reducing this inequity and WellSouth will be targeting the region’s most vulnerable families.

Some of the HPA’s most visited websites that focus on mental health - https://depression.org.nz/, https://thelowdown.co.nz/ and https://www.choicenotchance.org.nz/ - will also be free to access, though watching videos will not be free.

HPA manager information services Carla Lingnau says the agency was looking for ways to remove access barriers to health and wellbeing information and had explored some options three years ago but ran into technical challenges.

“The problem is that for many in our socio-economically disadvantaged populations / areas, access to a data network may be significant and fundamental barrier to accessing our digital services,” she says.

“Through this pilot, we want to evaluate the value and impact of removing data costs and availability as a barrier to digital health information/service access and delivery for all New Zealanders but particularly those experiencing the most inequity.”

The Ministry of Social Development already has a “Cheap as Data” scheme providing online services at little or no cost to users from their mobile phone or digital device if they are on Spark, Vodafone, 2degrees or Skinny mobile networks.

The 1737 national mental health and addictions helpline is also free to text or call anytime for mobile customers of these companies.

Will Reedy, Spark director of digital health, says Spark is involved in the project because it supports the company’s Health Vision: ‘Tomorrow’s Health and Wellness Team = Consumers + Clinicians + Machines’.

“We have developed a specific consumer strategy as part of this Vision and we see the sponsored data proof of concept as an opportunity to work with the sector to provide value by lowering barriers for consuming digital health and wellness services and to reduce health inequity,” says Reedy.

Murray Obsorne, head of public sector at Vodafone NZ says the pilot will help to better evaluate the access barriers to digital health information for all New Zealanders and particularly those experiencing inequity.

“We recognise that digital health services play a significant role in the lives of New Zealanders and we will continue to work with our partners to contribute to workable solutions to improve access.” says Osborne.

2degrees chief executive Stewart Sherriff says, “at 2degrees we know how important connectivity is to the health sector and improving patient outcomes across the spectrum.

“This pilot is a part of that, and we’re delighted to be part of a group that is helping bridge the digital divide by ensuring people can reach vital information about their health.”

Ends



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