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Are digital UK health services too hard to access?


Gary Flood Correspondent

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The Ada Lovelace Institute and the Health Foundation thinktank have warned that some people face ‘a closed digital front door’ when trying to access digital health services in the UK.

Research from the pair suggests that local and national government backers of digital healthcare, as well as the NHS itself, need to focus on socioeconomic inequality if they are serious about creating the digital front door the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it wanted to open in June 2022 via the NHS app.

Just published analysis by the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Health Foundation explores inequalities in digital health services and data driven health systems in the UK and identifies five key challenges around inclusion and digital healthcare that need to be tackled to open that door for many UK citizens.

They say the five problems are widespread digital exclusion and access to healthcare,  allied to a lack of clear metrics for monitoring inequalities in data-driven systems.

There is also a lack of public confidence in data use and protection, poor data quality and lack of social context in data.

Finally, the whole UK digital healthcare system suffers from communication issues across the whole data pipeline.

Last year The Nuffield Trust warned that achieving digital transformation in health and social care in England has long been a goal, but progress on it over the past decade has not been straightforward.

Earlier this year, UK IT industry trade body techUK members also warned that the ongoing ‘crisis mode’ within the NHS and social care was probably the greatest challenge for the digital health and care industry in 2023.

However, the Ada Lovelace Institute/Health Foundation probe is much more detailed and suggests more systemic risks — though it also suggests practical steps to make digital health more accepted.

For example, digital exclusion can be a huge problem for those with complex health needs, and the only real way to ameliorate that would be to always provide non-digital options for accessing healthcare to all patients and agencies like the DHSC, devolved health departments and the NHS should fund local authorities and voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations to help bridge the digital inclusion gap.

Organisations involved in designing and developing the NHS app and other patient-facing digital health apps should also be collaborating a lot more with GPs and local health providers to help clinicians, patients and carers understand how to use the apps, says the study.

Designed to help NHS commissioners, policymakers in local and national governments, healthcare technology designers and developers, researchers, and others involved in health data and digitisation work across the private and public sectors get a better grip on the inclusion problem, the study is augmented by a special YouTube series.

This presents the voices and stories of people with lived experience of poverty and ongoing health concerns about their interactions with patient-facing digital health services.

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