- 17 February 2017
- Posted in: Health & Social Care, Science & Technology
At Good Things Foundation we believe that digital can transform lives – and we’ve helped more than 2 million people gain new digital skills since 2010. We also believe it has the potential to transform the NHS – driving up the quality of care, delivering patient choice, and ultimately improving health outcomes.
The key is in getting more people – particularly the heaviest users of the NHS – to embrace digital interactions and information, and getting more NHS staff to recognise and use digital as a healthcare tool.
There are 12.6 million people in the UK who don’t have basic digital skills – and these people are also those who are most likely to be suffering from poor health. They are likely to be disadvantaged by age, education, income, disability, or unemployment.
The fact is that there is a huge crossover between those who are digitally excluded, those who are socially excluded, and those at risk of poor health. Our three year Widening Digital Participation programme with NHS England, which ran from July 2013 to June 2016, aimed to see how action on one front could influence the others.
Ron first went into Inspire Communities – an Online Centre in Hull – because he was about to be sanctioned by Jobcentre Plus for not meeting his job search commitments. Ron was homeless, had a gambling habit, as well as serious mental health issues. He was living in a tent on the motorway, on the occasional pot noodle and coffee. He was often hungry and cold, and his physical and mental health were going downhill.
Part of the problem was that Ron’s relationship with his GP surgery had deteriorated and he refused to go. With the help of Inspire Communities, he was able to look at NHS Choices for advice on managing his symptoms, and to find a new GP. He was able to register and make an appointment online without having to run the gauntlet of travel, receptionists, and other patients.
Plugging him back into the healthcare system was key in helping to connect him to the wider support he needed – and digital was key in doing this. Now he’s found new housing, taking an active role in his own healthcare, meeting his Jobcentre Plus obligations and dealing with his gambling addiction.
Digital matters – and digital health can make a huge difference to patients and practitioners alike. What’s more – it can do so at scale. Ron’s story isn’t just a one off. The programme reached 220,000 people, and throughout we found that giving them digital health skills meant they were empowered to take control of their own health, improving the ongoing management of chronic health conditions, and helping them to interact better with health and social care services.
We also saw how digital inclusion can improve the social determinants of health – with better digital skills improving prospects for employment, income generation, educational achievement, and social connections. 52% of participants said they felt less lonely or isolated, and 62% stated that they felt happier as a result of more social contact. More than half said they had gone on to use the internet to improve their mental health and wellbeing.
On top of this, the programme also showed that improving digital health skills had the power to reduce the pressure on frontline NHS services. By helping people to move non-urgent medical queries from face-to-face and emergency channels to online ones, we found we could potentially save the NHS an estimated £6 million a year, representing a £6 return on investment for every £1 spent on the programme in year three.
In summary, The Widening Digital Participation programme – and the local partnerships between UK online centres and local health and care providers that it nurtured – have proved that digital can drive up the quality of care and drive down both health inequalities and health costs.
Good Things Foundation has continued to build on this work with an in-depth project to look in more detail at the potential of technology to support dementia patients and carers – by connecting them to memories, key services and information. We’re now also working in two of the NHS Test Bed pilots, in Lancashire and Sheffield, exploring how patients with long term conditions can be supported using Apps, wearables and other modern healthtech.
We strongly believe that if the NHS is not only to survive but to thrive, it needs to embrace technology from the ground – and the patients – up. And we’re excited to see what other good things we can make happen in our future work in digital health.
By Helen Milner, Chief Executive, Good Things Foundation (Former Tinder Foundation)