Digital skills essential for good health, report finds

By Leila Hawkins
NHS Digital report says technology can reduce health inequalities...

Access to the internet and having digital skills are essential for people's health and wellbeing, a new report has found. 

NHS Digital, part of the UK's National Health Service, undertook a three-year project that trialled digital technology with disadvantaged communities as part of the NHS' Widening Digital Participation Programme. The report concluded that to reduce health inequalities, tackling the 'digital divide' is essential. 

Covid-19 and the resulting increase in the use of technology has exposed the links between economic disadvantage and digital exclusion, the authors say. 

Throughout the programme, several digital health hubs were set up across England, with the aim of building digital healthcare literacy and improving access to services. 

Between 2017 and 2020 almost 300,000 people were reached through 23 'pathfinder' projects. Managed by social change charity Good Things Foundation, the projects trialled different ways of using digital technology to improve the health of the most excluded people in society. 

The projects included using tablets to triage the health problems of homeless people, and promoting breast screening through Facebook - this led to an increase in uptake and has now been adopted elsewhere in England. 

Another initiative involved loaning tech to individuals caring for people with dementia, who reported huge benefits to their wellbeing.

The report's authors are now recommending creating a network of digital hubs that can support people to use different devices and assistive technologies. They also emphasised the importance of spending time with people to understand their needs, and design services with them, instead of for them. 

“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" explained Nicola Gill, director of the Widening Digital Participation Programme at NHS Digital. 

“Being there, talking to people, drinking tea and learning about their lives allowed us to gain trust and valuable insights into what they really need.

“If NHS commissioners, policy makers and designers of digital health services and tools can do just some of the things recommended in this report, then hopefully we can start to narrow the gap of health inequalities, and help people benefit from the choice and convenience they offer.”


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