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How to make digital health care more accessible for everyone

by | May 17, 2023 | Healthwatch Gloucestershire, Local Healthwatch

Healthwatch Gloucestershire has published a new report calling on NHS and social care providers to improve how they use digital technology to make services more accessible, particularly for those who are currently unable or reluctant to use digital options.

Digital technology is increasingly used to communicate with patients, provide care and self-help tools, and to offer information and advice. However, there is a digital divide in Gloucestershire and some people are left behind due to a lack of equipment, skills, confidence, or communication needs.

To better understand the challenges and opportunities of digital care, including what works well for patients and what doesn’t, Healthwatch Gloucestershire spoke to over 70 community service providers, surveyed 93 local people, and evaluated the user-friendliness of four of Gloucestershire’s NHS websites. They also spoke with several Integrated Care Board (ICB) members and other NHS staff, to better understand Gloucestershire’s current Health Digital Transformation Strategy.

The report details the challenges faced by people who are digitally excluded, and identifies several common themes and issues, including poor digital infrastructure (e.g. no or poor broadband access), a lack of hardware (e.g. no access to a computer, smart phone, or tablet), a lack of skills and confidence (e.g. not knowing how to use available technology and concerns around privacy and security), and special communication needs that may not be compatible with digital technologies or that require specialist equipment (e.g. screen reader).

The report includes several recommendations to improve access to digital health and social care services. These include, for example, GPs and other service providers giving careful consideration to potential digital barriers for patients and making appropriate adjustments; signposting people to organisations that can provide devices to those on low incomes; making websites and Apps accessible for people with disabilities, and simplifying the language used on websites; resourcing and promoting community organisations, such as digital hubs and digital champions, which play such a vital role in equipping people with digital skills and combatting digital exclusion in Gloucestershire.

Lucy White, Healthwatch Gloucestershire Manager, explained why they investigated people’s experiences of digital care: “Digital technology should make it easier not harder for people to get the care they need. However, there is evidence that some groups of people are disproportionately disadvantaged, including disabled people, older people, those on low incomes, and people with mental health challenges. We wanted to understand more about the digital barriers that exist for local people, how these affect them, and what can be done, in the community and by health and care services, to reduce these barriers and promote digital inclusion in Gloucestershire.”

Healthwatch Gloucestershire has shared their report and detailed findings with NHS Gloucestershire ICB to make sure their plans for digital health and care services reflect and address the issues raised.

Caroline Smith, Senior Manager Engagement and Inclusion, NHS Gloucestershire/One Gloucestershire Integrated Care System, commented on the report: “NHS Gloucestershire recognises that whilst digital technology can make it easier for some people to access healthcare, there are others who continue to find it challenging to take advantage of these digital options. We commissioned Healthwatch Gloucestershire to help us develop our understanding of what works well, the key barriers people are facing and what we can do in response to people’s communication needs. We would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to provide feedback and contribute to this research. It is clear there is a lot of work already underway across the county and we welcome the opportunity to work with Healthwatch and other community partners to improve the reach of local digital health care solutions.”

Read the full report: Access to digital technologies: People’s experiences of digital health and care options

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