Wednesday, 28 February 2024 08:55

Digitalising rural healthcare

Written by  Staff Reporters
John Macaskill-Smith John Macaskill-Smith

When it comes to rural healthcare in New Zealand, there is no one more tuned in than John Macaskill-Smith, CEO of Spark Health.

As the major sponsor of the National Rural Health Conference 2024 and having spent 25 years working within the health sector, he has a lot to say about where rural health technology is headed and how we can get there.

"Connectivity at a human level or digitally is critical,” says Macaskill- Smith – highlighting the importance of connectivity in overcoming barriers in rural healthcare. Spark Health is working with rural providers to tackle these challenges head-on, with the goal to enhance connectivity and integration across the healthcare ecosystem.

“Strong, resilient rural health is critical for the health and wellbeing of rural and regional communities in NZ,” Macaskill-Smith adds.

He acknowledges the significant pressure on the healthcare system, particularly in rural areas where challenges are compounded.

“How we manage this into the future is going to be critical,” he explains – emphasising the urgency of finding innovative solutions. He sees the National Rural Health Conference as an opportunity to connect, share ideas, and explore possibilities for improving rural healthcare.

One of the primary challenges, Macaskill- Smith notes, is the difficulty in pausing and reflecting on “what’s possible” to address challenges differently.

“Spark Health has reset its focus and is looking to work alongside the clinical frontline, particularly in the community, to help support and develop new approaches,” he explains.

Macaskill-Smith points out that health goes beyond just medical interactions and that rural areas face unique challenges in this regard. He says Spark Health is actively seeking to work with communities and frontline providers to better understand and address the challenges rural communities face.

The past five years have impacted how Spark Health views the digital space, placing importance on the strength of our communities’ networks in extreme weather events and how we configure our working and living spaces from a digital perspective.

“Mobile, broadband, and system connectivity is a challenge in many areas, but technology advancements and services are enabling us to reduce or remove the barriers,” Macaskill-Smith says.

As for Spark Health’s collaborations with rural health providers, Macaskill-Smith explains that the organisation is actively working to help reduce digital inequity between community care and hospital care.

“We are also looking to support the spring boarding of digital health through supporting innovation and research from the frontline to broader research,” he adds. From introducing digital platforms to supporting the full breadth of homecare support, and more advance point of care testing, Spark Health is continuously developing solutions to improve connectivity and integration across the entire healthcare system.

Looking ahead, Macaskill-Smith foresees several emerging trends in the integration of digital health and technology in rural healthcare. These include automation, streamlined workflows, patient insights, and advancements in connectivity such as 5G and satellite technology. However, amidst these technological advancements, he stresses the importance of retaining the human element of healthcare.

“With what we can now connect and combine in incredibly portable and powerful devices alongside artificial intelligence and enhanced software, we are wellpositioned to retain and strengthen a new type of rural health,” he remarks.

The biggest question Macaskill-Smith sees for technology in rural healthcare is how we can bridge the gap between opportunity and providing care today.

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