Any day now, a tender is to be launched to merge the nurse-led Healthline triage phone service with helpline services ranging from gambling to poisonings.
Healthline employs about 120 registered nurses – 85 per cent of whom work from home, with the remainder based in a Wellington call centre.
The Ministry of Health says the proposed integrated national telehealth service will bring together ministry-funded Healthline, Poisonline, Hepatitis C support services, Quitline, Gambling Helpline, Alcohol and Drug Helpline, and Depression Helpline into a “unified” but “enhanced” service “within current funding”.
Excluded is Plunketline and 111 calls to ambulance centres. The Immunisation Advisory Centre’s phone support line is likely to remain available to health professionals and may have public calls redirected to it.
The Ministry of Health confirmed that the next step in purchasing the new telehealth service – the release of a Request for Proposal (RFP) tender document – was expected before April 11.
A spokesperson for Medibank Health Solutions, which has the contract for Healthline, said at present it had a contract to continue to offer the service to January 31 2015.
She said Medibank was one of the companies that registered interest in offering the new service, and regardless of who wins the contract, would be entering into discussions to extend the current contract beyond January 31 to allow time to transition to the new national telehealth service.
Healthline began as pilot in four DHBs in 2000 and was rolled out nationally in 2005. The last time it was put out to competitive tender was in 2006. Healthline nurses use their clinical knowledge and an electronic clinical decision support system to assess symptoms and advice the appropriate level of care for callers and who to refer patients on to.
The proposed merger to create the new integrated telehealth service was announced last year and a “request for information” late last year drew 32 responses, leading to the Ministry of Health having one-on-one briefings with 19 of those organisations, including Medibank.
The ministry says the difference provided by the new service would be a “common front door” through which the public can access “telephone triage, advice, support, access to clinical information and sign-posting to health professional(sic)”.
It adds that the new service will be one of a “number of options” available to manage after-hours primary care at both local and regional levels.
The Medibank spokesperson said questions like whether the new service would be staffed by registered nurses only would be made clear when the RFP tender document is released.