The use of digital health tools to manage the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a “data divide” among the public, according to a new report.

While there was a “paradigm shift” in technology adoption during the pandemic there were also inequalities in access, knowledge and awareness of the technologies.

The finding is based on a survey by the independent Ada Lovelace Institute, working with the Health Foundation. The organisations found a “stark divide” in people’s experience of technology over the past year.

The pandemic has contributed to “worsening inequalities” with some people “left behind” in the surge in widespread adoption of data-driven technologies, it was found.

Such technologies included symptom tracking apps, contact-tracing apps and consumer-facing mental and physical health apps.

The report ‘The Data Divide’ found nearly a quarter (19%) of respondents did not have access to a smartphone while 14% said they did not have access to broadband internet, with the most clinically vulnerable – those who reported having a disability or those on household incomes of less than £20,000 – among those most likely to be in this group.

Some 60% of respondents had not heard of the ZOE Covid Symptom Study and 52% did not know about the availability of online medical appointments.

People with disabilities or identified as clinically vulnerable were found to be less likely to use personal fitness and mental health apps due to concerns around accuracy and effectiveness, the report also found.

“This illustrates a significant knowledge gap about the range of digital health services on offer, which affects people’s ability to access – and therefore benefit equally – from technologically-mediated healthcare,” the report said.

It urged policymakers and developers to be “mindful” of this knowledge gap to develop “inclusive, fair and accessible” technologies.

Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation, said: “Advances in the development and use of data-driven technology could play a critical role in supporting the recovery and improvement of NHS and social care services, as well as the health of the population, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Decisions made now about how these technologies are designed and deployed will set the precedent for how this happens in the future.

“However, these survey findings highlight the risk that technologies can exacerbate health inequalities, negatively impacting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.”

Steventon added it was “crucial” for the upcoming Data Strategy for Health and Care, led by NHSX, to ensure data-driven technologies are “designed, developed, deployed and evaluated working alongside the communities that might be most affected by them”.

Carly Kind, director Ada Lovelace Institute, added: “These findings show that we as a society need a much more inclusive approach to developing data, and data-driven systems. And how important it is for developers and policymakers to acknowledge that not everybody has benefited equitably from the use and implementation of technologies during the pandemic.”

NHS Digital and Good Things Foundation recently completed a multi-year ‘Widening Digital Participation’ programme aimed at breaking down the biggest barriers to using digital technology.

The programme focused on improving digital literacy, involving people to co-design digital health services and trialling technology in new ways.

Nicola Gill, director of the Widening Digital Participation programme at NHS Digital, wrote about the findings from the programme for Digital Health News.

Digital Health Unplugged recently published an episode on digital inclusion and tackling the digital divide with Good Things Foundation. You can listen to the episode here. Or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and iTunes.