Patients could now receive hospital check-ups at their local Post Office under radical plans being developed.
Post offices are working with a number of multinational companies and third-level institutions to develop technology for eHealth services which could be rolled-out in local branches.
The strategy is part of a number of initiatives being looked at to help the country’s 1,100 post offices, many of which are struggling to survive.
There were 198 closures between 2007 and 2010 and a further 24 closures between 2011 and 2014. Under the scheme those living in isolated areas could avoid long journeys to hospital for check-ups and could also access GP and nursing services in their nearest post office.
The remote health service and eHealth system would allow GPs and consultants to examine the patient remotely through a digital video conferencing system which would be developed.
Irish Postmasters Union (IPU) general secretary Ned O’Hara said: “You could have a virtual examination. I know when people are sick they have to go to their consultant and the consultant may look at them for a few minutes and are told to come back in a month.
“They may have to come from the top of Donegal or they may have to come from Longford and get a taxi 40 or 50 miles away or they may have to get a bus. They are down there all day in the hospital, all for five minutes in front of a consultant. Some of that, not all of it, but some of it, could be done remotely and technology could be used for that,” he said.
A number of major companies that have bases in Ireland as well as research institutes have come forward to lend their expertise and support to develop the system under a “shared value initiative”.
Post offices would be paid some commission for facilitating the remote health system.
It comes after a report on the future of post offices published by businessman Bobby Kerr recommended immediate action be taken to tackle the serious challenges facing the network.
Mr Kerr’s report said the social contribution of post offices must be taken into account and the IPU have now put forward suggestions that postmasters could be paid to provide geology services, tourist information or could even liaise with pharmacists to provide prescription drops.
A working group to transform post offices into “social hubs” which would offer numerous community, financial and retail services was established last week and will work at implementing the proposals.
Mr O’Hara said immediate action has to be taken to protect post offices and to ensure they have a viable future. “Our view is we want business, we don’t want a subsidy, we are business people, we want to do business, we want to carry out transactions and be part of the community.”
The new working group which will meet again in September is made up of members of the IPU, An Post, the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Irish Rural Link and community groups.
Among the recommendations put forward in Mr Kerr’s report is an overhaul of outdated postmaster payments and contracts.
Minister of State for Regional Economic Development Michael Ring has signalled his commitment to keeping post offices alive and is pushing the “hub” idea.
“I believe that the roll-out of post office hubs could potentially be of considerable benefit to local communities and contribute greatly to rural rejuvenation.”
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