Digital inclusion is key to tackling health inequalities

A three-year project trialling digital technology with disadvantaged communities has found that tackling the ‘digital divide’ is crucial to reducing health inequalities.

The final report from the NHS’s Widening Digital Participation Programme says that having internet access and digital skills are essential for people’s health and well-being today, but that the current ongoing coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the ‘digital divide’ – the links between digital exclusion and social and economic disadvantage.

However the report feels that the huge increase in the use of digital technology in healthcare during the first wave of the pandemic shows that the lessons learned from this project will be invaluable for the future.

Nonetheless, the report recommends creating a network of ‘digital health hubs’, after several were set up through the project to build digital health literacy and improve access to services. The report also 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.

Under the programme, delivered by NHS Digital, 23 pathfinder projects were set up throughout England between 2017 and 2020. A total of 285,164 people in total were reached, engaged or supported through this phase of the programme.

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. 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 do 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.”