A new six-month pilot from the Waikato District Health Board will allow anyone who signs up to access online after-hours doctors services for free, regardless of where they live.
The pilot is part of the Virtual DHB initiative which, since launching in May, has already had 1150 patients sign up.
Response has been high enough that plans are in place to work alongside the government's RealMe programme and local communities to allow residents to sign up more easily.
Currently patients can only sign up at the Waikato Hospital.
The Virtual DHB enables outpatients to connect with a doctor for a text or video chat online or with the HealthTap app on smart phone.
Waikato DHB chief executive Dr Nigel Murray said more than 60 per cent of people in the Waikato DHB district live in rural locations and patients often travelled long distances for a short consultation.
DHB clinical director of primary and integrated care Dr Damian Tomic said cost was also a common factor inhibiting patients attending after-hours care.
This resulted in high numbers of patients accessing the emergency department inappropriately, and Dr Tomic said many patients spent hours in ED when their query could have been answered easily by an online doctor.
"This would free up ED for more urgent cases," said Dr Tomic.
The online after-hours service will be free and runs from Monday to Friday from 6-11pm and Saturday, Sunday and public holidays from 8am-8pm.
Mr Tomic said it differs from the existing free call Healthline number because people will be put through directly to a doctor rather than a nurse, who can help with a diagnosis and provide prescriptions in certain situations that can be faxed to the person's local pharmacy to collect.
Patients will be able to message the doctor through their home computer, smartphone or tablet wherever they are and initiate a video chat.
For the after hours service 15 doctors have already been contracted, with two doctors on duty at any one time. These will operate from home.
"Doctors need to be the sort of doctors that know how to assess and triage and treat a patient in an emergency situation when you know nothing about them," Dr Tomic said.
"We do have to err on the side of caution because patient safety is paramount to the DHB and those patients that need to be fully examined will be asked to go to a facility to be seen before a prescription is written."
Any consultation notes coming from the after-hours service will be sent to the person's normal GP and will be available to view by the patient in HealthTap.
Sign up for the service at the inquiries desk at Waikato Hospital. Photo ID is required.