Digital health skills: Reducing inequalities, improving society

Today I’ll be at the House of Lords, launching our final report on the NHS Widening Digital Participation in Health programme.

Over the last three years of the programme, our aim has been to help people improve their digital skills, learn more about digital health, and improve their own health and wellbeing as a result. We have targeted those with least digital experience and most health needs in the heart of their communities.

With all of the challenges we currently face as a society, and with all of the pressures on the NHS, giving people digital health skills may seem like it’s not that much of a priority.

I’ll try and explain why it is.

There are 12.6 million people in the UK who don’t have basic digital skills and these people are those who are most likely to be suffering from poor health. They are also those most likely to be further disadvantaged by age, education, income, disability, or unemployment.

The fact is that there is a huge crossover between those who are digitally excluded, those who are socially excluded, and those at risk of poor health. The Widening Digital Participation programme aimed to see how action on one front could influence the others.

Ron

Ron Dale from Inspire Communities

Ron first went into Inspire Communities – a UK online centre in Hull and one of our pathfinder centres for this programme – because he was about to be sanctioned by Jobcentre Plus for not meeting his job search commitments. Ron was homeless, had a gambling habit, as well as serious mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. He was living in a tent on the motorway, on the occasional Pot Noodle and coffee. He was often hungry and cold, and his physical and mental health were going downhill.

Part of the problem was that Ron’s relationship with his GP surgery had deteriorated, and he refused to go. With the help of Inspire Communities, he was able to look at NHS Choices for advice on managing his symptoms, and to find a new GP. He was able to register and make an appointment online without having to run the gauntlet of travel, receptionists, and other patients.

Plugging him back into the healthcare system was key in helping to connect him to the wider support he needed – and digital was key in doing this. Now he’s found new housing, taking an active role in his own healthcare, meeting his Jobcentre Plus obligations and dealing with his gambling addiction.

Digital matters. Digital health matters.

And Ron’s story isn’t just a one off. Throughout the programme, we’ve found that giving people the digital health skills they need means they’re empowered to take control of their health, improving the ongoing management of chronic health conditions, and helping them to interact better with health and social care services.

We’ve also seen how digital inclusion can improve the social determinants of health – with better digital skills improving prospects for employment, income generation, educational achievement, and social connections. 52% of participants said they felt less lonely or isolated, and 62% stated that they felt happier as a result of more social contact. More than half said they have since have gone on to use the internet to improve their mental health and wellbeing.

On top of this, the programme has also shown that improving digital health skills has the power to reduce the pressure on frontline NHS services. By helping people to move non-urgent medical queries from face-to-face and emergency channels to online ones, we found we could potentially save the NHS an estimated £6 million a year, representing a £6 return on investment for every £1 spent on the programme over the last three years.

In summary, The Widening Digital Participation programme – and the local partnerships between UK online centres and local health and care providers that it has nurtured – has been proven to drive up the quality of care and drive down both health inequalities and health costs, ultimately improving society as a whole. And that’s definitely a result worth celebrating.

You can read more about the programme and download a copy of the report here: nhs.tinderfoundation.org.

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