Digital inclusion fundamental to tackling health inequalities

digital inclusion
© iStock/Jay Yuno

The NHS’s Widening Digital Participation Programme, delivered by NHS Digital, found that tackling the ‘digital divide’ is essential to reducing health inequalities.

In a three-year project, trialling digital technology with disadvantaged communities, the final report found that having internet access and digital skills are vital for people’s health and wellbeing.

The report indicates that COVID-19 has further exposed the ‘digital divide’ – the links between digital exclusion and social and economic disadvantage. It adds that the massive increase in the use of digital technology in healthcare during the first wave of the pandemic, demonstrates that the lessons learned from this project will be invaluable for the future.

Through the project, several ‘digital health hubs’ were set up. The recommendations of the report include the creation of a network of these hubs to help build digital health literacy and improve access to services. As well as this, the report calls for further work to harness the benefits of digital inclusion, for example by supporting people to try out different devices and assistive technologies to boost their health.

Between 2017 and 2020, 23 pathfinder projects were set up throughout England under the programme, run by the social change charity, Good Things Foundation. The pathfinders tested various ways of using digital technology to improve the health of the most excluded people in society.

One of the pathfinders, in Nailsea, Somerset, created the first digital health hub, and worked with homeless people to triage their health problems with the use of tablets. Another example is the Leeds Dementia Pathfinder, where people with dementia and their carers were benefited through the loan of digital technology.

A scheme in Stoke-on-Trent where breast screening was promoted through Facebook led to an increase in uptake of screening, so the same techniques have now been adopted elsewhere in the country.

Further recommendations of the final report included: improved data on the links between digital inclusion, health care and outcomes should be collected; that people’s digital health literacy should be improved, including supporting safe and healthy internet use; that work to build digital skills in health and care staff should continue, and networks of digital health champions should be created; and that digital inclusion should be an integral part of health, care and wellbeing strategies.

Nicola Gill, director of the Widening Digital Participation Programme at NHS Digital, said: “The pathfinders were developed around the principle of going to where people are, whether that was a GP surgery, a homeless shelter, a dementia support group or a cancer support network.”

Helen Milner, chief executive of Good Things Foundation, said: “During lockdown, people have felt lonelier than ever and have struggled with their physical and mental health. Digital Health Hubs, piloted and developed during the programme, have been able to tackle this by improving digital health literacy and the use of digital health tools in a safe, trusted space in the community.

“We hope that a future network of Digital Health Hubs and Digital Champions will further harness the benefits of digital inclusion. It is vital that digital is at the centre of health, care and wellbeing strategies in the future.”

Throughout the programme, a total of 285,164 people were reached, engaged or supported, 21,178 people were supported through the pathfinders and 268,986 people were reached, engaged or supported through the Good Things Foundation network.

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