Access to the internet and having digital skills are essential for people’s health and wellbeing, an NHS Digital-led programme has shown. 

Authors of the final report from the NHS’ Widening Digital Participation Programme have said the coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the “digital divide” – the links between digital exclusion and social and economic disadvantage.

The report includes a recommendation to create a network of ‘digital health hubs’, after several were set up through the project to build digital health literacy and improve access to services. The report also calls for further work to harness the benefits of digital inclusion, for example by supporting people to try out different devices and assistive technologies to boost their health.

Further recommendations are:

  • That improved data on the links between digital inclusion, health care and outcomes should be collected
  • That people’s digital health literacy should be improved, including supporting safe and healthy internet use
  • That work to build digital skills in health and care staff should continue, and networks of digital health champions should be created
  • That digital inclusion should be an integral part of health, care and wellbeing strategies

Under the programme, delivered by NHS Digital, 23 pathfinder projects were set up throughout England between 2017 and 2020. Social change charity Good Things Foundation ran the pathfinders, which tested different ways of using digital technology to improve the health of the most excluded people in society.

One project was the Leeds Dementia Pathfinder, where people with the condition and their carers were loaned digital technology, bringing huge benefits to their wellbeing.

A total of 285,164 people in total were reached, engaged or supported through this phase of the programme.

Nicola Gill, director of the Widening digital participation programme at NHS Digital, said: “The pathfinders were developed around the principle of going to where people are, whether that was a GP surgery, a homeless shelter, a dementia support group or a cancer support network.

“Being there, talking to people, drinking tea and learning about their lives allowed us to gain trust and valuable insights into what they really need.

“If NHS commissioners, policy makers and designers of digital health services and tools can do just do some of the things recommended in this report, then hopefully we can start to narrow the gap of health inequalities, and help people benefit from the choice and convenience they offer.”