Lifeline and the new national telehealth line

Somehow, in my traversing of the Ministry of Health literature, I managed to miss this one. Apparently, the government has made the decision to created a national telehealth service. It will incorporate Healthline, the Poisons Information hotline, Quitline, public immunisation information, the Gambling Helpline, the Alcohol and Drug Helpline, and the Depression Helpline. This came to my attention when Stuff ran an article about Lifeline missing out on the bid for the contract. I have some mixed feelings here.

First, Lifeline has some enormously experienced staff, and to lose them would be a tremendous loss to our telephone response services. I hope that Lifeline continues to exist, supported by funding other than this government contract, or that it makes a deal with the group that does win the contract,or at the very least that the winning group take on as many of Lifeline’s staff as possible.

A national telehealth service, though, could be a very good thing. I blogged a wee while ago about the problems with mental health helplines – that they are fragmented and do not give 24 hour cover. A national telehealth line that covers mental health issues could be a massive step forward, and combining depression help with gambling, alcohol and drug services would create a better service for people struggling with multiple issues.

On the other hand, this is a line that has to deal with poisons emergencies, and immunisation advice,  and general health enquiries, along with mental health stuff. Will mental health care suffer for it? I would like to think not, that the service will have professionals in all areas and calls will be directed to the right people, but I don’t feel any certainty around this. Government information about how it might work is sketchy, and my worry is that the lack of priority given to mental health issues in general may mean that what was a dedicated depression helpline (for all its faults) may become a tacked-on service, health with by people skilled in other areas, perhaps, but not in dealing with the mentally ill or the desperately suicidal.

This has so much potential, and I can only hope that it passes what will inevitably be harsh scrutiny with flying colours. It’s not a strong hope, however. Not much more than a flicker. Maybe, though, just maybe, the drive that set the National Depression Initiative up will be seen here and the service will acquit itself well.

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