Healthcare in Taumarunui is on the verge of a radical shape-up where patients could be diagnosed by a doctor two hours away using a video link.
The "telehealth" option is being considered by the Waikato District Health Board as it moves to integrate primary and secondary healthcare in Taumarunui and other rural towns such as Tokoroa.
Taumarunui in particular, where a hospital and three medical centres cater to 13,000 people, is struggling to recruit and retain doctors.
Part of the solution could be to implement a system where patients present to a nurse in Taumarunui and consult a doctor, probably in Hamilton, via high-definition cameras using ultra-fast broadband.
Health Waikato chief operating officer Jan Adams yesterday told a committee of the district health board the system worked effectively in rural New South Wales in Australia.
"Using the technology, two base hospitals of 180 and 200 beds respectively support a network of 41 rural and remote health care facilities and provide acute, trauma and mental health observation and diagnosis to local practitioners," Mrs Adams said.
"In most of the rural facilities, the town is without a general practitioner and the technology provides direct access to a consultant for discussion and diagnosis to the lead health care provider which tend to be nurses."
Mrs Adams said some urgent medical procedures had been performed on patients using the system and it negated the need for lengthy travel times to bigger centres for patients.
"Many patients are supported and cared for in their local community, undergoing regular remote review and preventing significant travel times of between five and 10 hours in many instances," she said.
She said technological advances meant the high-definition cameras, which could provide clear pictures of a child's rash, were now more affordable.
"What we saw was a very simple technology worth A$8500 ($10,870)."
The system was just one of the solutions being looked at by the Waikato District Health Board to combat the shortage of doctors.
The situation in Taumarunui had deteriorated over several years to a point where the cost of locums, to cover the gaps, was ballooning in the town.
Across the whole district, locums in medical, nursing, allied health and management had cost $6.4 million in the past year.
The board had been working on a model of integrated health care which would be presented in October.
Board member Ewan Wilson said the situation reflected a fragmented health system which should be tackled at a national level.
"Clearly we have the immediacy of the problem in Taumarunui but it's got to be a national solution and until we do that it's going to be fragmented," Mr Wilson said.
"The Australians have been managing this better than us for the last 30 years. All we have to do is copy them."