Are we at risk of digital transformation turning health services into a postcode lottery? The short answer to this question – posed at the HETT show – is ‘yes’, unless digital health companies can make sure their services are fully inclusive to everyone in the UK. Anything which excludes people on the grounds of where they live would indeed result in unequal provision… and a profound social injustice.
Region by region, the digital divide is stark. In the South East, 28 per cent of the population are limited users of the internet but in the North East, it is 38 per cent. In Wales, 36 per cent; the East, 33 per cent; Scotland and Northern Ireland, 32 per cent. Based on these numbers, provided by the , building digital health services for people who are limited users of the internet clearly risks excluding around a third of the population.
Too often, tech entrepreneurs make the mistake of assuming that everyone has the latest smartphone and is a digital native like themselves. In fact, eight per cent of UK adults do not own a smartphone, according to . That’s equivalent to 4.7 million people. Further, six per cent of UK adults do not have any access to the internet at home, , and this increases with age, with a fifth of those aged 65 and above not having home internet access, compared to just one per cent of 18-34s.
Internet access and digital literacy are “super social determinants of health”, according to a 2021 paper . Applications for employment, housing and other state support programmes, each of which influence health outcomes, are increasingly carried out online and sometimes exclusively so, the authors point out. They warn that greater reliance on digital tools has the potential to increase disparities between those who have skills and access and those who do not.
What’s more, if developers and commissioners don’t take the needs of all social groups into account when creating new digital health services, these disparities could become even more deeply entrenched, according to the . The research body urges a people-centred approach to addressing health inequalities, one that considers all factors at play such as economic deprivation, geographical and place-based inequalities, digital inclusion and skills.
At Inhealthcare, promoting digital inclusion is at the heart of everything we do. We know the people who are in the greatest need of NHS care are very often the ones who are least likely to have access to the internet and the skills to use digital health services. That’s why we offer people a full choice of communication channels – email, SMS, automated phone call or direct contact from clinical team – in our remote monitoring systems.
Our approach is proving effective. An found that Scotland’s remote health pathway for patients with Covid symptoms reduced health inequalities with more than twice as many people from disadvantaged areas using our service. A found our flexible contact methods worked well for patients with learning difficulties, sensory impairment and mental health conditions or those who did not have English as their first language.
Digital inclusion is more than a buzzword. For many people, it means being able to access life-changing services during their time of absolute need. They should not be shut out, just because of where they live. Anyone, anywhere in the UK should be able to benefit from the improved outcomes that can flow from the digital transformation of health services.
* Bryn Sage is chief executive of Inhealthcare