Digital doctor in the house

Alumni, Alumni achievers, Headlines — By on May 25, 2017 3:06 pm

Far North GP and public health champion, Lance O’Sullivan, talks with Julianne Evans.

Dr Lance O’Sullivan is in Auckland with his wife Tracy for the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Awards, where he is one of five University alumni being honoured.

They’re making an event of it, with Lance’s mother, two of their seven children, (aged between seven and 23), and other whānau invited to the glittering dinner in the new pavilion at Old Government House.

Unfortunately the rain, the worst the city’s had in years, is becoming a deluge, but it’s not going to dampen their enjoyment of a proud family occasion.

After a day packed with engagements, Lance is making time for a brief chat, which he says will be a good practice run for tonight’s speech, before racing back to the hotel to dust off his dinner suit, an outfit that’s had a few outings in recent times.

Named New Zealander of the Year in 2014, supreme Māori of the Year in 2013, Communicator of the Year in 2015, recipient of a Sir Peter Blake Trust leadership award … the list of accolades is impressive.

“In fact,” laughs Tracy, “we thought things had died down a bit and we’d gone under the radar, until we were contacted about this [Distinguished Alumni] award.”

The family lives on a rural block 15 kms north of Kaitaia, and making basic healthcare available for disadvantaged people in the Far North has been the couple’s shared mission for many years.

They set up the low cost health clinic “Te Kohanga Whakaora” (The Nest of Wellness) in the area and a second initiative, the “Manawa Ora Korokoro Ora (Moko) programme”, which was Northland’s first full-time, school-based health clinic, providing medical care to 2000 children across the region.

A third, the ‘Kainga Ora (Well Home) initiative’, focused on fixing cold, unsafe houses, starting with the premise that wellness begins in warm, dry homes.

And now there is iMoko, smart software Lance has developed, alongside Navilluso Medical Limited, to speed up the process of diagnosis for simple medical conditions in children.

“A South Auckland teacher,” he explains, “can see a child in their class with an obvious healthcare issue like a skin infection or head lice, and they can fill out a basic form and take a photo, which then gets sent to a digital health worker in Kaitaia, who sends it on to a doctor in Auckland – or anywhere in the world – who then writes a prescription and sends it to a South Auckland pharmacy near that child’s school for the child’s parents to pick up.”

And it’s all done on an iPad in a matter of minutes.

By November 2016, 4000 children in around 35 early childhood centres, Kōhanga Reo, primary, intermediate and secondary schools were part of this healthcare model.

At the moment there is roughly one doctor per 1500 patients, but with a digital ratio, one doctor can serve 100,000 patients, says Lance.

“The health service is there but people just don’t have access to it. This way, for a range of basic problems anyway, they do.”

He believes traditional models of care are failing the people who need it most, and the disruptive approach is the transformational change we need.

“We have a world-class health system but third-class treatment, and we have the capacity to make a big difference. Not enough people with the greatest need are getting access to our services because we’re stuck in a 19th-century view, but it’s the 21st century.

He believes young doctors graduating today in general practice might not need to have a physical space where they see patients.

“I don’t think we should be having health services delivered by doctors in clinics – we need to rethink things, be brave and aim for better, faster and more convenient care.”

But won’t patients, and doctors, miss the face to face contact?

“Not for the basic stuff. When I started iMoko, people told me, ‘Māori won’t like teleconferencing’, but they’re all on social media, they want to communicate in that way; health is just a late adapter to what’s already happening.”

Coming back to tonight’s event, he thinks back to his own time at the University, from which he graduated in 2001.

“I had a couple of shots at Medical School. As a 17-year-old in pre-med, I only attended for 10 weeks, I found it overwhelming; I was one of 20,000 students who all wanted to get into a school of 200. It wasn’t the right time.”

Coming back aged 20, he was already married to Tracy and had a young son, Connor, who is now 23 and studying for a Bachelor of Health Sciences at Auckland.

“When I came back in 1994, it felt like an exciting adventure. I was a young Māori student and there were a small number of Māori and Pacific students so we were quite close knit. I was exposed to a lot of different people – Malaysian, Indian, Asian – they were young people with energy and ideas.”

He says he knew it was an institution that could really help his life.

“It was going to give me the tools I needed to support my family, and my dreams. When I hadn’t succeeded the first time, it was quite a blow, so I thought I’d approach it from a different angle, figure out a methodical way to get through it.”

The University Calendar in those days, he remembers, was “a big fat book and Orientation had long queues”.

“I said to Tracy, ‘I want you and little Connor to come with me [to enrol].’ I had a course I absolutely had to get into, I carried my son and we all waited in the queue. I got put to the front and I think I got in on the sympathy vote.”

“Every year I said to Tracy, ‘I’m going to withdraw.’ Every year was challenging. I struggled with a lack of self-belief.”

Thanks to a rocky early life, marred by “an absent father and a lot of social dysfunction”, he was a troubled teenager, expelled from two high schools before attending Hato Petera College, a private Māori Catholic college on the North Shore.

“Hato Petera was a last attempt by my mother to sort me out, and it worked. In the end, it was her love and care and the realisation [via the school] of my Māori identity and Catholic faith” – and meeting and making a life with Tracy, his partner in love, work and parenting.

Time is getting on and if he leaves now, he’ll have just enough time to have a nap before the evening’s celebration.

Of course he must be tired, although he and Tracy look remarkably fresh in the way of highly effective people who seem able to function at a different level of intensity to the rest of us.

And he’s got that speech to write. He’s author of his own inspirational story, The Good Doctor (2015), and in demand as an after dinner speaker; it doesn’t hold too many fears.

Authenticity and honesty are what people relate to from public speakers, he believes.

Hearing him later, I would add a dash of humour and a lot of humility to that recipe.

A final word on what he’d do if he ran our health system: “I’d want to gain equitable health outcomes, investing in any high-energy, interesting initiatives, which might involve investing in many to find the right one.”

And the thing that makes it all worthwhile?

“To see a child I’ve helped, or a family, getting better, that’s the reward.”



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