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Nationwide Healthline service poised to take off

26 July 2004

Nationwide Healthline service poised to take off

All of New Zealand will have access by June next year to a free nationwide health information phone line that will incorporate PlunketLine and build on that line’s success, says Health Minister Annette King.

Healthline, a 24-hour service funded by the Ministry of Health at a cost of about $10 million a year, will be progressively rolled out around the country, and will be staffed by registered nurses able to advise on a range of health concerns -- from symptoms assessment to the location of after-hours medical services or late-night chemists.

Ms King said Healthline would maintain PlunketLine's valuable role in providing support for parents, as well as information on child health issues. Plunket nurses with specialist training in child and family health will deal with all calls needing parenting advice or Plunket (Well Child) services.

"Healthline is designed to ensure the provision of the right level of care, at the right time and at the right place," Ms King said. "It will be available free 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for callers within New Zealand, including those calling from mobile phones once this service goes national."

Healthline services have been operating in four pilot areas (Northland, East Coast/Gisborne, Canterbury and the West Coast). These will be expanded to provide a national service, beginning in the South Island in October, with Wellington and the Wairarapa on board by the end of this year. Full national coverage will be achieved by the end of June 2005.

The existing Healthline and PlunketLine phone numbers will continue to operate.

"Healthline incorporating PlunketLine provides an easy source of health service information, and is particularly useful for disadvantaged groups and those who live in rural areas," Ms King said. “I am delighted that this move will not only provide an excellent service for the whole of New Zealand, but will also ensure that PlunketLine retains its special role for New Zealand parents.”

Healthline and PlunketLine nurses will be based initially at a single Wellington call centre, with a second call centre in Auckland established as the service expands. They will use a computer programme and specialised triage software to advise callers on the most appropriate course of action for their problem.

That might include symptom assessment, counselling, home treatment advice, referral, disease management, crisis intervention or basic health information. The triage software incorporates a set of guidelines that specify the order and type of recommendations offered, based on the information provided by the caller.

Healthline pilot programmes have so far proved extremely successful, with an independent evaluation of the service recording a high level of caller satisfaction. Healthline typically records a 97 per cent or higher satisfaction rate in surveys, with over 85 per cent of calls answered within 20 seconds.

Healthline general manager Michelle Branney says the pilot service had proved invaluable for thousands of New Zealanders.

"We have received many calls thanking us for saving lives and for the caring nature of our registered nurses who are at the end of the phone line," said Ms Branney. "Our nurses come from community care, primary health, emergency department and midwifery backgrounds and are highly skilled at ensuring people get the right level of care at the right time. Having the Plunket nurses alongside us will ensure that callers are directed to the best person for advice."

The emergency care and community care organisation St John, a Healthline partner since its inception, is delighted the phone service is going national. St John Communications Centres director Tony Blaber said St John's brought a strong level of community involvement and understanding to the Healthline service.

Plunket chief executive officer Paul Baigent says the move is an exciting development for PlunketLine.

"The relationship with Healthline secures the future of specialist Well Child health services provided by the telephone," he said. "In many respects, this relationship validates the work previously done to ensure PlunketLine survives and has the capacity to respond to calls that currently go unanswered."

Telephone services similar to Healthline have operated in the USA for more than 20 years and are also found in the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Scandinavia, France, Belgium and Portugal.

Background Information

Who is Healthline aimed at? Healthline is accessible to everyone with a phone. It provides an assessment of medical problems with advice on the most appropriate level of treatment and a recommended timeframe for doing so; advice on self care and symptoms management, advice on illness prevention, general health information, information on location and availability of services, and a connection to emergency services.

What happens during a Healthline call? Once a call is answered, Healthline staff will talk a caller through their symptoms, discount those that do not apply and using a process of elimination, assess how serious the symptoms are, the appropriate place to seek help, and a timeframe for action. The advice dispensed may range from something as simple as "an ice-pack and a lie-down", through to "see your GP within 24 hours" or "we are ordering an ambulance for you right now."

How safe is Healthline? The Healthline service was audited for clinical safety by the Department of General Practice at the Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the School of Health Sciences at Massey University. They concluded that the service operates consistent with NZ Nursing Council Guidelines and had operated at least as safely as similar telephone services overseas. Independent research company BRC Marketing and Social Research, and Massey University's Maori health research centre Te Pumanawa Hauora found the service to be a safe and effective way for New Zealanders to get expert health advice.

What else did the evaluation find? Most callers were women or adults calling regarding children; 78 per cent were from people who relayed symptoms with the rest from people wanting general information; 69 per cent of calls came outside normal business hours; 69 per cent followed Healthline advice and when they didn’t it was because symptoms had abated; and 97 per cent were satisfied or very satisfied with the service. Calls averaged 10 minutes duration.

When will PlunketLine be incorporated into Healthline? This will be gradual. Initially PlunketLine nurses will relocate to the Healthline call centre and the two phone lines will run concurrently. Over time, the service will be integrated with the ability to triage or provide Well Child advice as appropriate for each call. PlunketLine will be fully integrated into Healthline by June 2005.


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