The fate of more than 100 Healthline nurses is unknown after another provider was chosen to launch a merged national telehealth service later this year.
Late last month Health Minister Jonathan Coleman announced that Homecare Medical – a partnership between Auckland's ProCare Health and Canterbury's Pegasus Health – was its preferred provider for the new national telehealth service due to go live on 1 November.
Neither the new provider, Homecare, nor the current Healthline provider, Medibank, were prepared to comment on the Healthline nurses’ job prospects beyond 31 October.
Australian spokesman for Medibank Colin Neathercoat also declined to answer Nursing Review queries on how many registered nurses were currently working for Healthline. When asked (12 days after the announcement was made public) a direct question about how many Healthline nurses Medibank employed, he replied, "Once we've had time to properly digest this announcement, we'll be in a better position to comment".
But in April last year, when the Government first launched its tender for a contract to provider the new national telehealth service, a Medibank spokesperson said that Healthline employed about 120 registered nurses, of which 85 per cent worked from home and the remainder from a Wellington call centre.
Merging other phone helplines
The new national telehealth service being launched on 1 November is also to integrate Healthline, Poisonline, Quitline, Gambing Helpline, Alcohol and Drug Helpline, the National Depression Initiative, and immunisation advice for the public.
The fate of the staff currently delivering the other affected telehealth services is also unknown, with Homecare Medical saying it was unable to comment at this time.
"While Homecare Medical is the preferred provider for the national telehealth service, we are still working with the Ministry of Health, and until the contract has been signed we can't comment on any likely future configuration or service design of the telehealth service," said a spokesperson.
Homecare Medical was formed in February 2014 when Pegasus Health joined forces with ProCare's existing HML service, which has been operating in Auckland since late 1996. Currently Homecare employs around 44 registered nurses (including some nurses in its management team) and provides a 24/7 after-hours general practice services, including nurse phone triage, health advice, practice information and care coordination services. It also employs six administration staff who are trained to answer some of the non-clinical calls. All Homecare Medical's telehealth services are currently provided from Auckland
In a press release on 18 June, Coleman said the country's current individual telehealth services handle around two million calls a year and they would all now be available 24/7 under the new merged national service from 1 November. The services not affected by the merger are PlunketLine and 111 calls to ambulance services. (A scheme whereby non-urgent, non-life-threatening calls to ambulance call centres in Auckland are diverted to Homecare Medical nurses, and in Wellington to Healthline [Medibank] nurses, is currently continuing.)
Homecare Medical was also unwilling to comment further on what extra services registered nurses may be asked to provide, in addition to those offered currently by Healthline, and whether nurses would be offering some of the services currently offered by Quitline, Depression Helpline and Gambling Helpline.
“While the current health and wellness phone advice lines work well and we’re starting from a strong base, there is an opportunity for them to be more connected and to significantly enhance the services currently offered," said Homecare Medical chair Dr Martin Seers in a press release at the time of the announcement. "We will integrate with them and collaborate with other service providers over time."
Both press releases also talked about the new advice service linking callers to their own nurses, GPs, pharmacists and other health professionals but details were not yet available on how the telehealth service planned to integrate with local and regional health services.
Meanwhile Medibank's New Zealand operations head Pauline Smyth said Medibank was naturally disappointed to miss out on being the preferred provider but would work closely with Homecare Medical to transition the Healthline service by the end of the year.
She said it was too early to be specific about the impact of the decision but meanwhile it was 'business as usual' for Medibank's other New Zealand services, which include the provision of homecare services, sensitive claims support for ACC and providing an after-hours Mental Health Line telehealth service for seven district health boards.
What's in the national telehealth service?
Homecare Medical says from 1 November the following national free telehealth services will be provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week:
- HEALTH TRIAGE & ADVICE: the Healthline service will be provided by Homecare Medical employed registered nurses.
- POISONS: the National Poisons Centre will continue to provide a service to clinicians and the public but the telehealth nurses will have access to some elements of the Poisons Centre database.
- QUIT SMOKING SERVICES: Homecare Medical will deliver virtual smoking cessation support and says the Quit Group Trust will support the transition between providers. No other details are available.
- ALCOHOL AND DRUG ADVICE: Homecare Medical is to deliver Alcohol Drug Helpline services and says it will "continue to work very closely with Alcohol Drug Association New Zealand (ADANZ) who currently deliver this service". No further details are available.
- IMMUNISATION AND VACCINATION ADVICE: the Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC) team is to train Homecare Medical nurses to provide public advice, while IMAC will continue to provide clinical advice to GPs and hospital staff.
- DEPRESSION ADVICE AND SERVICES: these are to be provided by a "well-resourced team" but no further details are available from Homecare.
- GAMBLING ADVICE AND SERVICES: these are to be provided by "leading New Zealand mental health and addiction specialists" but no further details are available.
At this stage there are no changes to current helpline services phone numbers or contact details.