Making digital health services work for everyone

Published by Sarah Cant on

Last Monday saw the publication of the NHS Long Term Plan, which sets out how NHS England will change over the next ten years and the improvements that people should expect to see, and benefit from.

A whole chapter of the Plan is dedicated to digital – including digital information and online health services, direct access for patients to their electronic health records and tools to help clinicians give the best possible care. These are ambitious plans, and if they work they could reduce many of the frustrations people have with making appointments, getting advice and joining up the different services they use.  They could also free up precious time for over-stretched doctors, nurses and support staff.

However great new digital health apps and systems are, they will only benefit those people who have the digital skills to use them. Over 9 million adults in England don’t have all the essential digital skills[i].  They are more likely to be older, have a disability or have a low income, which are also all factors that can mean they are more likely to experience poor health.  If NHS England’s digital plans are going to make a difference to the people who need them the most, support for digital skills needs to be at their heart.

Practically, most of the changes outlined in the Long Term Plan will be developed by local health providers, who have not traditionally had digital skills at the top of their agendas and may not prioritise them. The work of One Digital partners has shown us that health can be a good hook to get someone online or learn a new digital skill, for example by showing them how to fill in an online form to request a prescription, or how to use an app to monitor their fitness.  Digital Champions are an effective way to support people to learn these skills, as they can provide local, personalised guidance at the right pace.

It would be great to see more Digital Champions working alongside the health services – from volunteers running sessions in GP waiting rooms, to reception or admin staff who can support patients and colleagues. By working with national and local organisations who know how best to provide digital skills support, local health providers will harness some great expertise and help their local service users to benefit from new digital health tools.  I hope to see more health organisations recognising the importance of digital skills in achieving the Long Term Plan and working with partners to make sure skills support is at the heart of all new digital initiatives.

[i] Source: Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2018

Author: Sarah Cant, Programme Director for One Digital