Pharmacy offers flexible care with online innovation

The New Zealand No 8 wire mentality of resourcefulness has led to innovative healthcare in a small Central Otago town.

Roxburgh Highland Pharmacy owner Alastair Forbes has introduced Practice Plus, an online GP service based in the Hutt Valley, to his community.

There was a private space in the pharmacy for those who did not have, or were not comfortable, using technology on their own and the option for others to dial a doctor from their smart phone or own computer.

Practice Plus offered same-day appointments and after-hours care for patients who could not be seen at their own medical practice.

Patients filled in an online form and were given an appointment time, usually for the same day unless they called close to closing, Mr Forbes said.

Blood and other tests could be ordered and prescriptions issued by the doctors.

Notes would be sent to the patient’s own GP for their records.

While there is a medical practice in Roxburgh, he knew people were having difficulty getting appointments to see a doctor.

Added to that, fruit growing was one of the main industries in the district and that brought seasonal workers to the area.

There were also thousands of tourists who visited or passed through the town on State Highway8.

He thought online GP visits were an efficient way for someone to consult a doctor.

For example, if they were working on an orchard they could speak to a doctor without having to drive into town.

Similarly, tourists needing medical advice could use the service.

Practice Plus offered appointments until 10pm on weekdays and from 8am to 8pm at weekends and holidays.

All its practitioners were New Zealand registered doctors or nurse practitioners.

About 20 years ago, when Skype was the latest thing, he approached the district health board and suggested using Skype calls for medical consultations, but the board was not interested in investing in the technology.

Just before Covid slowed the world, Lance O’Sullivan, named 2014 New Zealander of the Year for work on rural health projects, called at the pharmacy and the pair chatted about using technology to connect patients and doctors.

Around the same time, Mr Forbes read about a pharmacy in Upper Hutt that had connected with an online GP practice.

Fast forward to a post-Covid world and the time seemed right.

Mr Forbes, who also had a depot at Lawrence, was not being paid to offer the service.

Practice Plus general manager Jessica White said it had been established between a number of Primary Health Organisations to increase access options for primary care.

The same-day service ensured continuity of care between it and a patient’s regular medical care team.

The service was an extension to general practice, to complement and collaborate rather than compete, she said.

As a sole pharmacist in the town for 25 years, Mr Forbes had a strong connection to his community but that came at a personal cost at times.

“You can get burned out.

“You have to have the pharmacy under direct supervision of a registered pharmacist at all times.

“That can be onerous.”

He had missed funerals and other events as he was contracted by the government to have the pharmacy open every weekday.

There were no other pharmacists in the area so any day off, never mind a holiday, took planning.

“You have to pay travel and accommodation and that can be costly.”

However, he had creative ways of incorporating his interests into a work day.

On Fridays, he dons his kilt and plays the bagpipes outside the pharmacy, and has incorporated his love of cycling by running bicycle hire from the shop.


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