Ryl Jensen is chief executive of the Digital Health Association (DHA), the industry body representing the majority of digital health companies and organisations in Aotearoa New Zealand. In this blog, Ryl provides her perspective on where things are at and where things are heading for digital health across New Zealand.
Top image: The Minister of Health, Hon Andrew Little, cutting the DHA’s 20th Birthday cake, with Ryl Jensen (DHA CEO) and Kate Reid (DHA Chair).
It is amazing to think that as I write this blog we are coming to the end of August. There has been an enormous amount of activity within digital health, and actually across the entire health system over the last eight months.
Whether it has been with the continual resurgence of COVID-19, the winter flu or the Government’s health system reforms, I want to acknowledge our incredible health workforce, who day-in-day-out come together to work and support the physical and mental wellbeing of our communities – our health workforce is simply amazing. We cannot underestimate the toll that the current environment has taken on them.
In the brief space that I have in this blog post, I want to cover three topics of importance right now – the Health System reforms, our concept for a digital mental health hub, and the 20th birthday of the Digital Health Association (previously known as New Zealand Health Information Technology NZHIT), an organisation I am honoured to lead as CEO.
It is my belief that we are at a juxtaposition in digital health. While information and communications technology (ICT) is extensive across hospitals and the health ecosystem in general, largely due to continued under investment across many DHBs, systems remain siloed and fragmented, not fully interoperable, and many systems are outdated. New Zealand’s 2022 health sector reforms, however, have identified that data and digital are one of five key shifts required to enable consumers access to safe, high quality, and convenient services and to facilitate consumer driven health. The shift to more consistent and modern digital platforms across our health sector will also enable our health workforce greater efficiency of daily workflows, enable better continuity of care for patients, and help reduce medical errors. All of these are great and purposeful ambitions for our health system!
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the status quo and advanced the digital health agenda considerably where technology solutions became fundamental in aiding the response to the pandemic. As a result, investment in digital health has been made at a scale not seen before and national programmes of work, such as Hira, have begun. However, imperative to the successful delivery of data and digital across New Zealand’s restructured health system will be an effective partnership between the digital health industry and the public health system, which, as the leading industry body, we are committed to continuing to grow and advocate for.
COVID-19 has taken a toll on us in many ways, and our mental health is right up there. While it is normal to feel anxious or stressed in times of difficulty, it takes an awful lot of resilience to go through isolation, separation from family, fear of illness, and job or income loss – all at the same time.
The Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission’s Te Huringa: Change and Transformation. Mental Health Service and Addiction Service Monitoring Report 2022 found there continues to be pressure on specialist services, particularly for young people. The report also found there was a significant increase in the use of mental health digital and telehealth services, such as depression.org.nz and 1737 Need to Talk?
This follows research last year that found the uptake of online mental health support tools skyrocketed at the start of COVID, between March and June 2020.
It seems pretty obvious then, that New Zealand would benefit greatly from a national digital mental health and addiction hub. The hub could provide more accessible nationwide support to people across primary care and help relieve some of the pressure on current face-to-face services. As well as this, those who might initially come through the digital mental health hub but end up with greater needs could be identified and transferred to in-person assistance.
The Digital Health Association (DHA) recently worked with other key partners on a paper Optimising our digital mental health, addiction and wellbeing ecosystem. Endorsed by leading mental health and addiction and digital health experts throughout the country, the paper calls for leadership and the development of an overarching digital strategy. Among other things, it envisages an Aotearoa in which people can easily select and engage with a range of tailored digital mental health services.
We will continue to push for this important concept; we believe it could make a hugely positive contribution to our mental health and addictions system moving forward.
It would be remiss of me not to briefly talk about the 20th Birthday celebrations of the DHA, which we held in the Grand Hall of Parliament on the 24th of August.
Not only was the event a birthday celebration, it was an amazing opportunity for all of our members, colleagues, and partners to hear from key sector leaders such as the Minister of Health, Hon Andrew Little, who timely announced the end of faxed prescriptions and a move to allow all controlled drug prescriptions to be sent through the current NZePS electronic prescription service. You can read his announcement here.
We were very privileged to hear from Riana Manuel, the Tumu Whakarae of Te Aka Whai Ora – the Māori Health Authority, Stuart Bloomfield the Chief of Data and Digital at Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand and Michael Dreyer, the General Manager of National Digital Services at Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand.
What all the speeches spoke to, is that technology, data, and digital innovation will help transform our health system, help us improve the access and quality of our health services and contribute greatly to achieving health outcomes that all New Zealanders deserve and expect.
If there was ever a time for digital health, it is now. The DHA is excited by the opportunities that we have in front of us and from our perspective, it is all systems go for digital health in New Zealand.
Established in 2002, the DHA is a not-for-profit incorporated society (owned by its members) and represents a wide range of digital health companies and organisations including NGOs and healthcare providers across Aotearoa. Their mission is to “enable a healthier Aotearoa New Zealand” through the uplift of digital technologies in the health sector. The DHA advocates for and represents the value that digital health technology provides in New Zealand and offshore through engagement with Te Whatu Ora and other government agencies, education, networking events, advocacy, and keeping the sector up-to-date with initiatives such as Hira and other work programmes. The DHA acts as the core conjugate between government and industry and provides the central point for communications and activities relating to digital health.