Exciting innovations to support older people with technology

G’day! I’m currently working with our amazing team at Good Things Foundation Australia and whilst I have been here I’ve been reflecting a lot on the opportunities that digital technologies and services offers to older people. Here is Australia we’re working with local partners right across the country to support older Australians to thrive online through the Be Connected programme.

Recently, Good Things Foundation launched two fantastic guides; one was designed to help older people use the internet and the other explains how to use games to teach tablet skills. These are amazing resources which I think will help so many older people enjoy a better quality of life by unlocking their digital potential. These guides are excellent and, after a few minutes reading, virtually anyone will be able to give an older person a helping hand on their journey into using the internet or tablets. We’re going to adapt these guides so that they will be contextualised for Network Partners in Australia too.

When thinking of older people who are benefitting from using the internet, it makes me think of Edith who we worked with for Get Online Week a few years ago. She’ll be 91 now and she went from having low digital skills, to being an emailing, Skyping, digitally included superwoman! She found that her newly acquired digital skills have helped her to be able to manage her health and doctor’s prescriptions and she identified that, as she gets older and gets less mobile, the more useful her newfound digital skills will be. You can hear Edith’s story here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FxIKCAJ0yI

The new guide which explores how games can help older people learn how to use tablets is particularly ingenious, in my opinion, and I’m really excited to see the results that come from it. 52% of non-internet users aren’t online because they don’t see the need or because “being online is not for people like them”, and this is particularly the case amongst the 65+ demographic. Perhaps this attitude can be overcome through games. Using technology for the first time can be frightening, but making the learning process fun could overcome that. If people don’t want to “learn” about the internet, playing games doesn’t feel like learning. Yet, by playing the games, they’re learning how to use a touch screen, how to correct a mistake and that it’s fine to experiment. You can also begin to establish peer support if one of you has the tablet and the other knows how to play the game. I can’t wait to see the results from this guide being used.

Seeing the incredible work being done through the Be Connected program here in Australia has also made me reflect on the benefits of digital skills for older people. Since launching in 2017, we’ve built a growing network of over 2,200 community organisations who empower older Australians to thrive in an increasingly digital world. The network is diverse and covers everything from libraries to retirement villages, computer clubs to cultural groups and community centres to men’s sheds. In a short space of time, we’ve already supported over 100,000 people and counting.

I think the story that best typifies the amazing impact Be Connected can have is the story of Valerine and Lindsay Davis. Val’s Parkinson’s disease diagnosis kick-started her into taking digital literacy classes at Lockyer Community Centre and her husband Lindsay, who was the coordinator of the local Parkinson’s support group, and wanted to keep up. Val started with embracing social media so that they could reconnect with family members and to upload and manage her photos.  What brought this example to mind is that Val’s husband Lindsay uses his newfound digital skills not just to check the weather from the Bureau of Meteorology’s website, but to play games too. I wonder how many more people, like Lindsay, will develop their digital skills through games as well as using other digital tools and services.

The new guides are an excellent read for anyone wanting to show older people how to use the internet, and you don’t need to be a computer expert to do it – if you’re confident using the internet, then you already know enough.

The guide to helping older people use the internet is available here: https://www.onlinecentresnetwork.org/sites/default/files/a6_your_guide_to_helping_older_people_use_the_internet.pdf

And the guide to using games to teach tablet skills is available here: https://www.onlinecentresnetwork.org/sites/default/files/a6_your_guide_to_using_games.pdf

If you’re in the UK and you’d like a hard copy of either of these booklets, please email hello@goodthingsfoundation.org

And we will be adapting these for use in Australia in the next few months.

And if you’ve read this far, here’s an unrelated but lovely photo of some art painted on huge grain silos that I saw last weekend in regional Victoria, Australia. This one is in Brim, and was painted by Guido van Helten. Amazing. Enjoy!

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Online Harms White Paper: Let’s tackle internet fears and help more people reach their digital potential

No-one is a bigger advocate of the wealth of opportunity that the internet offers than me. However, we do have to acknowledge that the internet also opens people up to risk. Technology evolves, transforms, and innovates at a speed that legislation just isn’t keeping up with. This why I am largely supportive of the hotly anticipated Online Harms White Paper, released earlier this week by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office (what do you mean that “we don’t all hotly anticipate government white papers!?”)

This White Paper is the government setting out its policy to tackle “online harms” such as extremist content, “fake news” (or “disinformation”, as it’s referred to in the paper), child abuse and other elements of the internet that put many people off using it altogether. As a result of this White Paper, internet companies could be fined, or even blocked, if they fail to tackle issues on their platforms. They are hoping to do this through establishing an independent regulator who will draw up a code of practice and giving it the power to fine non-compliant companies – including possibly fining their chief execs – or block sites that break the rules.

There are concerns about freedom of speech implications, however, when looking at the paper from the view of encouraging digitally excluded people to get online and enacting social change through digital, it’s hard to see this as anything but a positive step forward.

It’s important that whilst online harms are taken seriously, that they are understood. One in five non-internet users don’t go online because they don’t trust the internet, or don’t feel it’s online or secure. The internet can be a frightening place, especially for those with low self-confidence in using technology. However, letting fear of the dangers of digital stop someone from using it or, in the case of parents, restricting childrens’ use, is counterproductive to their life chances and the potential for our society and our economy.

The benefits of digital far outweigh the dangers. The economy is becoming more reliant on digital and digital skills are increasingly becoming vital for competing in the job market – and on top of this, people can save £744 a year by just being online and being able to shop around better for goods and services. Those who are shutting themselves off from the online world are putting themselves at a disadvantage, and we need to tackle why some people are frightened of the internet and how we address these concerns.

One recommendation I’m particularly excited is the Empowering Users section, where Government sets out its plans to help people tackle online harms, through giving them the online media literacy to manage their own online safety. In this section, the needs of adults (and children) to be able to practice online safety are acknowledged

“However, for adults, there is insufficient messaging or resources covering online media literacy. There is a need for further work to address issues such as the sharing of disinformation, catfishing (i.e. luring someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona), attacks on women online (particularly public figures), and the differing needs of people with disabilities when navigating information.”

At Good Things Foundation, we know full well just what a concern online safety can be for people who are digitally excluded. Because of this, we’ve developed a number of internet safety courses on our Learn My Way platform, which helps people tackle online harms. We know better than anyone that media literacy support is incredibly helpful for adults for a number of reasons, and especially tackling online harms. If we want to truly unlock the potential that a fully digital UK could offer, then we need to bring about a society with higher levels of digital skills, and less technophobia  – an important pillar in bridging the digital divide, that we are so passionate about.

How digital can help you take control of your cash

This weekend I was listening to Money Box on BBC Radio 4 and a segment about the so-called “Challenger banks” (small, recently-formed, retail banks competing with larger banks) caught my eye… well, it caught my ear. This wasn’t just because I bank with Monzo and love it, but because it highlighted the amazing potential for people to use digital tools, such as banking apps, to take back control (probably not the best choice of words this week) of their finances. I have to admit, I initially started my account with them because they don’t charge you for spending from your card overseas or mark up the exchange rate, but I found they have a lot more to offer.

Monzo (other challenger banks are available!) boasts that half of their customers are under 30 and a further quarter is under 40. So, I am proudly of the 25% of over-40s who are giddy about the potential that smartphone-only banks, that give you real-time visibility and control of your cash, offers us all. I think it would be really useful if more demographics explored the empowering possibilities of digital banking. Especially that which challenges the status quo.

The way we are paying for things is transforming, and the biggest change is that we aren’t using change (or cash)! We’re tapping with our card or our phone. However, not using cash to pay for things can cause some people to develop negative behaviours with their money. Let me explain; You’re on a night out, you’ve taken some cash out to pay for drinks. When you run out of money you know it’s either time to go home or tackle the dreaded internal dilemma of “should I go to the cashpoint and get more cash out? How will I feel about this decision in the morning?” However, the number of establishments which actually take cash is dwindling. If you spend the night paying for things contactlessly (I’ve just made up a word) – not even entering your pin – it sometimes doesn’t even feel like you’re really spending money, does it? We all know what the result of that can be, spending a lot more than you should have done or wanted to.

The beauty of being able to see your finances in real time, and getting instant notifications when you’re spending money, is that it makes spending your money feel like you’re spending your money again! This allows people to tackle any negative behaviours they have developed around managing their money better in the age of contactless. Hopefully, it can stop the thinking that just because you cannot see physical currency leaving your pocket and going into the till, that it doesn’t mean it isn’t costing you.

One of the converts to the church of digital banking told Radio 4 “It has improved my relationship with money exponentially.” Being able to have realtime access and analysis allows him to budget based on how much money he actually has now, not on how much money he thinks he has. This has given him a sense that he now feels in full control of his money, and this is important. For too many people, especially people on low incomes, it is easy to feel like your finances are spiralling out of control and this can lead to getting loans to pay for everyday essentials and, ultimately, getting stuck in a debt trap. Payday loan users are typically on low incomes or unemployed and looking for work and 3 out of 4 payday loan customers take out more than one loan a year. Wouldn’t being able to grab their finances by the scruff of the neck through banking methods like this help them massively?

Another interesting aspect of these challenger banks is the ease of savings, another person on the show, who is a customer of Starling spoke of a scheme these banks do called “rounds ups”. Basically, every transaction he makes gets rounded up to the nearest £1 and the difference goes into a savings account, making it easier for people to build savings. You buy a £1.40 sandwich? 60p goes into savings. You spend 25p on a Fredo (although it should be 10p), 75p goes into savings! Recent data shows that 14 million working-age adults in the UK are not saving at all and the majority do not have a rainy day or savings pensions pot. The mean amount a UK household is putting just 1.7% of their income aside for savings. Encouraging people to save will help them save for their retirement, a rainy day or a special purchase.

Another bonus of some of the new kids on the banking block is the flexibility and immediateness of applying. There aren’t lengthy credit checks and there isn’t the need to go into a branch and have a meeting. Whilst there will always be a desire for people to have a personal relationship with their bank in person, it is becoming harder-and-harder to do so. Nearly two-thirds of the country’s banks and building society branches have closed over the past 30 years.

Another opportunity they offer to help you manage is your finances, is that you don’t need to have empty jam jars full of cash dotted around the house, assigned to different expenses – these apps allow you to digitally separate your money into “pots” only to be spent on certain things, to help you budget better. This has struck me as particularly useful for people who have accidentally found themselves in rent arrears following the roll-out of Universal Credit, being able to just keep some ringfenced to pay vital bills.

It’s clear that people who struggle to keep control of their finances are the ones who can benefit the most from these developments in banking, however, these are often the very same people who have low digital and financial capabilities. Non-internet users are more likely to be in the social classes DE, older and/or have left education earlier. There are 17 million people in the UK with low financial capability and 1.4 million people with both low financial and digital capabilities.

So how do we get the people who will benefit most from these innovations over the hurdles that are stopping them? To answer this I was looking at a project we were doing at Good Things Foundation, in partnership with the Money Advice Service, where we built up a financial capability course, giving structure and support for people to make their first online transaction. Whilst it’s not strictly the same as getting into online banking, it could be seen as the first step on this path and the fears around online banking and online transactions are very similar; people don’t know what they’re doing, people fear they’re going to get ripped off and people just don’t feel confident enough to get into it.

We found from the project that, if you help someone to make an online transaction, they are more likely to make a transaction again independently. We did a Randomised Control Trial where we gave people 8 weeks of financial capability classes through our Online Centres and found that the group who had been assisted with an online transaction saw their financial capability improve by 18-38% compared to just 12-22% of people who didn’t and they were 6.5 times more likely to make an online transaction again in the future. Perhaps then a logical hypothesis is that through supporting people to use smartphone-only banks, that they are more likely to embrace these opportunities for improved financial health.

Being able to make transactions online saves money and, as a result, stabilises peoples’ finances. Whereas, the inability being able to save money online exacerbates “the poverty premium”. Shopping online for bank accounts can’t just save you money, it can sometimes makes you money.  However, people remain frightened, and understandably so, The ratio of media coverage of negative aspects of online transactions compared to the positive aspects must be about 1000:1! That is why it is good to support people in their first forays into online banking, answering their fears, giving them safety tips, and showing them that online banking isn’t a dark dystopia where they are helpless to fraudsters, but an opportunity for them take the reins of their finances.

We also found through our project with the Money Advice Service that our Online Centres are particularly useful places to as they do not abandon clients when it is no longer financially viable to continue supporting their learning, giving them open-ended support as, even the most computer literate amongst us, always find a question they don’t know the answer to.

I, and many others, are living proof that these banks aren’t just for twenty-somethings to easily ping over £25 to their mate for a concert ticket. They offer great potential for improving people’s financial health, whether it’s by making it easier to budget or curbing carefree consumption. However, for society to reap the full benefits that these innovations offer, we need to make sure that people who need better financial control can build up the digital skills to be able to access these opportunities.

 

ITV Tackle Digital Exclusion On Primetime TV

If you weren’t channel hopping between the 7pm and 8pm showings of Emmerdale to keep up with latest in the saga of Cain Dingle and the return of Kim Tate last night, you might have seen the excellent episode of Tonight on ITV at 7.30pm, entitled Priced Out? Old and Offline – a whole half an hour dedicated to the issue of digital exclusion. It was brilliant. If you missed it, don’t worry –  it’s available on catch up via ITV hub: https://www.itv.com/hub/tonight/1a2803a1223

It didn’t just tackle the issues facing people who are digitally excluded that we’ve been talking about for years – it also highlighted the vital work we do day-in and day-out at Good Things Foundation to achieve social change through narrowing the digital divide. I was honoured not just to be on it, but to have so much of the work Good Things and our partners showcased to the nation. And, primetime coverage for such an important problem facing society – that as the world becomes digital, people are getting left behind.

The show raises some critical issues – 11.3 million people in the UK lack digital skills and, as we saw, this meant they couldn’t access basic services, whether that is jobs, benefits applications, housing, or connecting with loved ones. The internet is becoming increasingly integral to society and the economy. Yet shockingly, in 10 years time 6.8 million people (12% of the adult population) will still be digitally excluded. Both their life chances and their quality of life will be seriously affected if they don’t have basic digital skills.

One of the most striking stories in the show was Carolyn from Liverpool, who was one of our 2018 Get Online Week case studies. Carolyn is a single parent who had spent the first 47 years of her life offline. She told ITV,  “Internet didn’t mean anything to me… I’d see the kids on (the internet) and think I would have a go one day, but I was just too scared.” Then she was made redundant from her job as an office cleaner and struggled to find a new job through the more traditional methods she’d relied on before.  

Carolyn needed digital skills, not just to search for a job, but to actually get the job through building a CV and applying for work online. I recently read that 100% of vacancies for large organisations were advertised purely online, so without help, Carolyn would have fallen at the first hurdle.

Carolyn was supported through one of our amazing Online Centres –  Kensington Community Learning Centre. In the words of Deborah, who helped tutor her at our Centre, Carolyn “took to it like a duck to water”, and thanks to her newly acquired skills, she got herself a new job.

I mentioned on the show that even people on the lowest incomes are able to save an average of over £500 a year through basic digital skills, as it’s easier to shop around for goods and services and get the best prices. Having no internet access can exacerbate the ‘Poverty Premium.’ The people most likely to be digitally excluded are the elderly, people who live rurally, people who are in and out of work or out of work completely, and people with disabilities. The sad reality is that it tends to be those who need the internet most are the ones who don’t have access to it. This is driving our campaign for a 100% digitally included nation through our Bridging the Digital Divide campaign.

Which is why it was great that the show covered the 100% Digital Leeds programme, and the work lead by Dylan Roberts, Leeds City Council’s visionary Chief Digital Officer. The work they’re doing is not just helping them to become digitally included – it is also helping to improve their lives. The show covered our friends at St George’s Crypt, a charity in Leeds who help homeless and vulnerable people, and who are also supporting people to get basic digital skills which can help from everything between knowing when the bus arrives to applying for benefits, college courses, and housing. It transformed the life of Stephen who, it was clear to see, has a much better and improving quality of life thanks to being digital included.

Whilst, for most, this week’s Facebook outage was an inconvenience, the story of Lillian highlighted that social media is about much more than just sharing pictures of your dinner or your cat. Lilian had been alone since her husband died, so she sought help to build her digital skills from Ryan and the team at Starting Point in Stockport. I think we were all touched by her amazement after sending her first email, and before long she was video-calling her family in Wales, adding friends on Facebook and getting broadband installed at home.

And the show also covered the story of Emma Krause, in Saltburn, who – thanks to the support of her local Online Centre Destinations – enhanced her own small rural business through building up her digital skills and embracing being online. Not only is she banking online, but she is also using more advanced software to improve the artwork she produces and to develop and run her company’s website and social media, turning her business into a global success story.
Whilst Kim’s return last night shook things up for those in Emmerdale village, I hope that last night’s episode of Tonight shook things up for viewers at home – inspiring those who don’t have digital skills to take their first steps, and encouraging those with offline friends or family members to point them in the direction of support. This can be through the Online Centres Network, or our Learn My Way site. It was inspiring last night to see the work of a handful of organisations in our network – Starting Point in Stockport, Leeds Libraries and the 100% Digital Leeds programme, Destinations at Saltburn and Kensington Community Learning Centre. There are thousands of organisations across the country helping people to change their lives through digital, and it was great to see this work, and the impact it is having, showcased right there on the telly in my living room. I still feel so proud. Do watch it – you’ll love it!

A lack of investment in adult skills is stalling progression, particularly for the most excluded

This article was originally published here on Politics Home.

Digital technology charity Good Things Foundation’s Chief Executive reflects on the Social Mobility Commission report into the adult skills gap published this week.

Good Things Foundation 

Earlier this week the Social Mobility Commission published its report into the adult skills gap, and the impact it is having on social mobility in the UK. The results – as perhaps expected – show that a lack of investment in adult skills is stalling progression, particularly for the most excluded.

People from lower socio-economic backgrounds are the least likely to take part in adult learning. And this means that they’re being held back. They’re less likely to progress within the workplace and so are often trapped in low paid jobs, and they’re also missing out on a wealth of other opportunities learning can provide.

There are a number of reasons for the lack of investment. The Government’s adult skills budget, along with many others, is being stretched. There are fewer opportunities to learn, and often the opportunities that are available aren’t reaching those who with the most to gain from them.

All of this means that those who could most benefit from adult learning are the least likely to access it. This is why it’s so important that Government works with the community sector to widen access. They have to reach and engage people facing all forms of social exclusion – and these people are the most likely to be disengaged from education.

This means finding ways to fund community engagement activity as a pathway to further learning.  There needs to be a more progressive approach to funding adult learning that recognises it has a powerful impact on social mobility, which in turn can drive shared prosperity and social cohesion.

Through our network partners, we’ve supported over 2 million people to improve their basic skills, and the impact these improved skills have had on individuals is significant. 86% progress to further learning, and 76% progress to positive employment outcomes. Giving people a taste of learning, and showing them what they can achieve, leads to a range of positive benefits. People are more likely to be able to better manage their money, and their health. They’re more likely to be able to help their children with their own education, and they will feel more connected to their communities.

Basic digital skills are a crucial part of the adult skills mix, and people who are lacking them are being left behind in today’s increasingly digital world. At Good Things Foundation, we know that by building digital inclusion into community-based learning, the positive effects are even greater. We are increasing confidence and personal efficacy, as well opening up ways people can take advantage of opportunities, from jobs to better health.

There’s also a powerful economic and social case for building in digital inclusion. There are 11.3 million people in the UK who don’t have digital skills, and although this number is falling, there will still be 6.9 million lacking these skills by 2028. Giving everyone in the UK basic digital skills will bring a benefit to UK plc of £21.9 billion. And these people are more like to be socially excluded too, so we have responsibility to ensure that they’re not being left behind. Current government policy risks increasing this inequality if digital services, like Universal Credit, don’t build in digital inclusion support from the outset.

That’s why as part of our Bridging the Digital Divide campaign, we’re calling on government and other partners to make a commitment to getting 100% of the nation digitally included by 2028. We know, as this report acknowledges, that both government and employers have a role to play. But although both are taking steps to try and close the divide, not enough is being done quickly enough, which is why we’re calling for co-ordinated action now.

The ‘vicious’ cycle of learning that the report references – where those most in need of learning are left furthest behind – needs to be broken. And to do this, we need to ensure that learning is both available and accessible. This means informal, community-based support as a pathway to more formal and more advanced learning: and building in digital inclusion as a further driver of opportunity.

The UK risks both being left behind as a nation, and leaving behind the individuals who can most benefit from learning opportunities. And with the challenges we are facing in the coming months and years, we can no longer risk missing the opportunity to make positive change for those who are most excluded.

1 million supported, but we’re nowhere near finished

Today we were delighted to announce that our Future Digital Inclusion programme, funded by the Department for Education (DfE), has helped over 1 million people, since 2014, to gain the basic digital skills they need for life and work. This has been the result of a great partnership with DfE, whose staff genuinely understand the wider social impact of basic digital skills on the lives of socially excluded people, and with thousands of hyperlocal community partners across the Online Centres whose special abilities both engage and support people in the heart of their communities for whom digital blended with great human face-to-face support is the lifeline they’ve been looking for.

It’s been an incredible journey to get here and I’ve met so many amazing people along the way. Here a few of them:

  • Bertram Henry was a learner in Manchester. He suffered a breakdown and could barely bring himself to leave the house. Eventually, he felt up to visiting the Jobcentre and they recommended he go along to his local Online Centre, First Asian Support Trust (FAST). He completed lots of courses on Learn My Way, improving his knowledge and confidence. Now he’s been able to find a job as well. Bertram says: “I feel bright in the morning now, because I’ve got somewhere to go, and something constructive to do. I’m not down in the dumps anymore”

Hear Bertram’s story, and how happy he was to win one of our 2 Millionth Learner Awards: 

  • Edith Ball from Preston learned digital skills at her local Online Centre – The Intact Centre. She was cautious about getting online but now there’s no stopping her – she’s using Skype and emails to talk to family abroad, surfing the internet to find out all sorts of information, and much more. She’s delighted with her new skills and is much less lonely as a result. Edith says: “Before I came here, I just sat in the house on my own, but coming to the IT classes brings me out of the house and gives me something interesting to do. I’m never bored and I enjoy everything I do there. I do still get a bit nervous using the computers but I would recommend it to anyone. The whole world is there online – you’ve just got to have the courage to go in and look!”

Hear more about Edith’s journey from the lady herself in this video, released as part of Get Online Week: 

  • Rory Whittaker from Lincolnshire is a young contract farmer. He learned digital skills with his local Online Centre Lincs Training to diversify his business in new and exciting ways, meaning he can be profitable all year round. Rory says: “For all businesses in today’s current climate, evolution is vital, and even more so if you’re a rural business. You don’t want to get left behind. You need constant financial and time investment and you need to learn how to do things more easily. I think the best way to grow a business is to find a model that works and apply it to what you know. Having great people and great projects supporting you like Rich and the team from Lincs Training makes that journey even better.”

See more of Rory’s story in this video, released as part of the Get Online Week campaign: 

An incredible journey

It has been a real journey to get to 1 million, made possible by the hard work and dedication of the 5,000-strong Online Centres Network. 80% of the people they’ve supported face some form of social exclusion, including poverty, low skills or a disability.

The programme has helped people to achieve a range of positive outcomes, with 86% of learners progressing to further learning, 76% increasing their employability, 60% improving their health and wellbeing, and 84% able to use public services online.

Our recently released Economic impact of Digital Inclusion in the UK report found that the benefits of learning digital skills are endless. From time savings (undertaking financial and government transactions online could mean an estimated value of £1.1bn saved by 2028), NHS savings (the more people that can use the online world to help manage their health, the more savings can be made – estimated at £141 million by 2028) and transaction benefits (being able to shop online, taking advantage of discounts and more, could collectively save people across the UK an estimated £1.1 billion by 2028).

Digital skills are so important in many aspects of life and reaching 1 million learners through the Future Digital Inclusion programme is an incredible achievement. I am so proud. Thank you to the Good Things team, the Online Centres Network, but most of all, the learners for being so brave and having the confidence to take that first step into online life.

There is still more to be done though. 11.3 million UK adults still lack at least one basic digital skill and 4.3 million have no digital skills at all. We will continue supporting Online Centres to help learners to make the most of the online world, but this is something that needs collaboration and, of course, the ‘F’ word (funding).

It’s not just about supporting people to be more digitally able and it’s not just about the new skills they’ve learned – it is what people can do with these skills that matters, and how they can apply them to their lives – to be digitally active – to apply for work for example, or to email a family member who lives far away, or join an online forum to help them lose weight and reduce their risk of Type 2 Diabetes.

At Good Things, we want everyone to be digitally equal – so they can participate in the digital society like others can and do. If people aren’t digitally equal, they’re excluded from an increasingly digital society. We don’t want this to happen – and so we’re campaigning for a 100% digital nation. These million people we’re celebrating today brings us that one step closer.

NHS Long-Term Plan: Prevention and saving lives through digital and in the community

This morning, I got a letter from my doctor. I’m perfectly well, so it was a bit of a surprise to receive. The letter said (I paraphrase) that he hadn’t seen me for a while and he was wondering how I was getting on, that he knew I was busy and so if I preferred having a chat on the phone that would be fine. This has never happened to me before and asking around the team, it doesn’t seem to have happened to any of my colleagues either. Is this a new approach to preventing illness rather than just curing it? As it happened on the same day as the NHS’s Long-Term Plan, it definitely got me thinking about the importance of prevention and personalised care, and the role both digital and community support can play in this.

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Tim Brazier, our Head of Service Design, shows residents in Nailsea how they can use digital health resources, as part of the NHS Widening Digital Participation programme

The Long Term Plan really resonated with me. It’s great to see the level of ambition and the focus on digital, prevention and community. It’s really well thought through, it’s clear, and it should help to save lives. It has also made me realise (again) just how lucky we are to have a world class health service that’s free at the point of use. All praise for the NHS.

There are three big things that jumped out at me from the Plan: digital, prevention and community.

Digital, Prevention, Community

Digital, prevention, and community have been cornerstones of our approach over the last decade. We believe in a world where everyone benefits from digital, so it’s not surprising this is central to the work we do. And we achieve this through a movement of community-based organisations across the country who can tailor support based on the needs of the people they’re helping. By doing this, we are helping to prevent a range of issues – from loneliness through to mental health issues, poverty and a lack of skills. We’re preventing people from becoming even more excluded. I’m pleased that the NHS is recognising the importance and value of both digital and community, and the crucial role they can play in the prevention of illness.

Opportunities and risks

There is no doubt that digital technology offers huge opportunities to improve health and healthcare in the UK. But there is a word of warning to those who are hoping to build a digital-first service – and there are some hard lessons to be learned from the digitalisation of Universal Credit as we build a ‘digital first’ NHS.

The plan states that the NHS will ensure technologies work for everyone including people who are the most ‘technology averse’. But this is no simple feat. Digital First is a great ambition as long as it’s for everybody. Understanding and building services for those with no or very low digital skills is a huge challenge – but one that must be met in order to ensure that this ambitious plan can be realised.

A digital NHS for everybody

There are 11.3m people in the UK who do not have basic online skills such as being able to search for information, fill out a form or send an email. These people are more likely to be older, poorer and living with disabilities, to be at risk of conditions like type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety, and so it follows that they are more likely to need health services and support.

Our research shows that there is a complex set of digital and social barriers to people engaging with and using digital technology. Factors such as poverty, low literacy levels, lack of basic English skills, poor mental health and low confidence and self-esteem can all play a part. I want these people to enjoy a great health service and better health, as well as people like me who know how to navigate the health services I need (although my GP preferred letters and a chat over the phone.

The good news for Matt Hancock is that we’re here to help. I hope 2019 is the year that we can do just that, helping Matt, Simon Stevens, and their team to understand how to join up the hyperlocal informal health ecosystem and the formal work of the NHS. We really think we’ve discovered a way to blend the very human-centred support (offline) with the great online and offline formal support on offer from the NHS. Through our delivery of the NHS Widening Digital Participation Programme, working in partnership with local health systems, community and voluntary sector partners and national partners, we have been learning about the potential of technology to create the conditions where people feel more empowered to manage and improve their health and wellbeing and to access services where and when they need them.

Prevention in the community

It’s not just the NHS that has a role in helping people to find their own journey to better health and to avoiding potential health issues. We work with thousands of community partners, in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country, who are helping these people every day. Often this is about partnerships between the NHS and local community partners. Simon Harris, for example, has lost weight and reduced his blood sugar level by developing his digital confidence after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

In the first phase of our NHS Widening Digital Participation Programme (2013-2016) over 221,000 people were supported to go online and use digital health resources saving over £6m for the NHS in just one year and just by shifting the channel they used away from more expensive NHS support to the cheaper and more appropriate support channel – which might be online or the local pharmacist.

Over the last 18 months, we have supported a range of innovative pathfinders across the country, testing new ways of enabling some of the most excluded groups in our society to benefit from digital health resources. All the findings are available on our Digital Health Lab site.   

We worked with Stoke CCG to explore using social media to increase the uptake of breast cancer screening where early detection can significantly improve outcomes. The results saw a 13% increase in uptake of screenings in a deprived area, against a declining national trend.

We supported Nailsea Town Council to bring digital health to the high street developing a high street digital health hub  – connecting people with each other and with the digital resources they need to live well. One man living with dementia was able to learn how to use Skype to communicate with his family. As he was able to read visual signs, this was a much more successful way of communicating.

In Hastings, we worked with the Seaview Project and their partners to enable people who are sleeping rough to access the health services and information they need – resulting in a whole range of positive results which will have a preventative impact in the long term, including improving eating habits to help prevent diabetes to learning how to take blood pressure medication correctly.

The learnings from NHS Widening Digital Participation, and our wider digital and social inclusion programmes, show us that to fully harness the potential of a ‘digital first’ NHS for the most socially and digitally excluded people in our society, approaches to lifting barriers need to be person-centred, community-based and enabled through trusted relationships.

Launching the next five pathfinders

We are pleased to announce that in the next 18 months we will be spreading this hyperlocal digital health hub model in five more local health and care systems across the country;

North West London, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Staffordshire, Blackburn.

We’ll be stress testing what we’ve learned in other areas to see if this digital health hub model could be replicated and scaled up. There will be more news on our Digital Health Lab as these hyperlocal pathfinders get underway.

Better health for everyone: digital, prevention, community

So well done Matt, Simon and your hard-working teams. Well done for delivering a world-class health service every day for all of us. Well done for a great Ten Year Plan. Well done for consulting with people outside the NHS. But, I think you can do better. Let’s work for a truly hyperlocal health system that joins up informal and formal support – both locally and nationally – to help us build a digital health service, run by the NHS with the community. That will really be a world-class health system that works for everyone.