As the world continues to advance digitally, the topic of digital transformation within the NHS gains momentum. While digital transformation unlocks many benefits for the health service and those who use it, there are underlying issues that need to first be addressed so everyone has equal access to healthcare.

Health inequalities have long been a concern in the healthcare sector. While these inequalities have always existed, as society has become more digitally focused, a new issue has emerged — digital exclusion.

We look at both health inequalities and digital exclusion in the UK and how they can be addressed to ensure a brighter, healthier future for all.


Where Does the UK Currently Stand?

Although the UK has one of the best healthcare systems globally, that does not mean the problem of health inequalities and digital exclusion does not exist. 

In terms of health inequalities, people with lower incomes or living in poverty are more likely to experience poorer health. Those in the most deprived areas of the UK can expect to live 18 fewer healthy years than those in the least deprived areas.

Although health inequalities have been a growing issue for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problem. The pandemic disproportionately affected those already experiencing health inequalities, including those in the most deprived areas and people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Digital exclusion is part of the equation, too. There is a close correlation between digital exclusion and social disadvantages in today's society. Digital exclusion applies to people who do not have the access, skills, confidence and motivation to use digital technologies in everyday life — approximately 9 million people in the UK cannot use the internet independently. 

Relating to the pandemic, digital exclusion was heightened as the world went into lockdown. While many people relied upon digital technology to facilitate their access to healthcare, for others, their lack of access put them at a health disadvantage.

It is undeniable that this issue needs to be tackled to ensure equal access to healthcare and digital services throughout the UK. We are going into more detail about the NHS' initiatives to ensure this is achieved.


The NHS and Digital Technologies

Advancing digital technologies and accessible healthcare within the UK is a top priority for the NHS. In 2019, the NHS Long Term Plan was published — a 10-year plan that commits to reducing health inequalities and addressing unwarranted variation in care, in part through the adoption of digital initiatives and technologies. 

While this predominantly aims to benefit the general public’s access to and utilisation of the healthcare service, there are also many benefits for the system itself. Adopting and rolling out digital technologies will help lower the cost of delivering services, allow for the more appropriate use of services and be a better use of resources.

So, what initiatives is the NHS delivering to drive down health inequalities and digital exclusion?


Patient Engagement

Patient engagement is at the heart of solving the issue of health inequalities and digital exclusion. Educating and involving patients is key to getting them invested in their own health journey. 

Patient engagement comes in many forms, with some involving digital technologies. Supporting better health through developing services and tech that helps people manage conditions and access appointments can play a crucial part in closing the health inequalities gap.

Cross-sector collaboration should also be an essential focus. Working with external partners that help patients with their healthcare will assist the NHS to ensure patients have greater access to healthcare to meet their needs and fit in with their lifestyles. 

A notable example of this collaboration is the EFL Trust FIT FANS. The English Football League and NHS have encouraged football fans to lead healthier lifestyles.


Service Design

Service design is the practice of designing the end-to-end service from the user’s point of view. At NHS Digital, service design is about the best use of service touchpoints for patients, the backend systems and software that support this, as well as the policies and procedures that underpin the health service.

Investing in digital technologies and designing a cohesive service will positively impact health inequalities. Healthcare will be more accessible; monitoring health conditions will be easier and working with external partners will be facilitated.


Improving Access to Care

One of the biggest barriers to reducing health inequalities in the UK is access to care. This is often influenced by wider determinants such as income, housing, environment, transport, education and work.

Digital services and virtual care — online appointments, digital triage and online booking systems — can ensure more people can access the care they need at a suitable time. Virtual care services provide more flexibility to fit in with an individual’s schedule and needs, such as their location, job, childcare needs or any other factors.


Digital Training

While all of the discussed digital developments will help reduce health inequalities throughout the UK, this does not solve the issue of digital exclusion. In fact, it could make the problem worse if the NHS moves to become more digital when there are still 10 million people in the UK that lack the basic skills needed for a digital world.

Digital training will have to become a critical focal point for the NHS to make sure no patient is left behind. 

There are already several initiatives in place to improve digital literacy for those trying to access healthcare. There are Online Centres in many communities to give people access to digital services in supported environments. The government has released the essential digital skills framework to enhance digital skills, while the NHS is supporting ‘digital champions’ to help educate patients in the healthcare setting.


The Future of Healthcare in the UK

There is no doubt that for the NHS to improve and move forwards in the future, the adoption of digital technologies and processes is essential. Not only will this enable greater efficiencies, better use of resources and a better patient experience, but it will also help reduce health inequalities by offering better health management platforms and increased access to care. 

However, this digital journey cannot progress without acknowledging the issue of digital exclusion. Through greater awareness, enhanced training and greater cross-sector collaboration, digital skills will hopefully increase and digital exclusion will become a thing of the past.


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