A recently published report is calling on the NHS to reform how it collects and uses data provided by users of digital apps to help tackle health inequalities surrounding ethnicity.

The Digital apps and reducing ethnic health inequalities report, published by the NHS Race and Health Observatory, measured the variation in use and experience of online apps by ethnicity. It then used the findings to make a series of recommendations for NHS leaders and providers.

Two case studies were used to gain insight for the report: the NHS Blood and Transport (NHSBT)’s Give Blood App and the mainstream NHS App. With the NHS App already reaching 30 million sign-ups it becomes even more vital to close health inequality gaps.

The report looks at how digital data could be used in the future to improve patient access and outcomes, while at the same time addressing existing health inequalities.

It revealed that analysts working within NHS digital and app teams are limited by their lack of access to data, resources and capacity to target and analyse where ethnic health inequalities exist.

Owen Chinembiri, senior implementation lead at NHS Race and Health Observatory, said: “One of the biggest barriers preventing NHS leaders in prioritising digital interventions and addressing inequalities is the lack of accessibility and data linking clinical outcomes, demographics and access to patient’s online behaviours.

“We need better data collection and processing to ensure a focus on where interventions are needed most to target health inequalities.

“This lack of co-ordination linking health services with conditions, ethnicity and how people from diverse backgrounds use digital resources, means better insight into health inequalities being overlooked.

“With the right design, online digital apps can help the health system get to grips with tackling the underlying causes of health inequalities.”

As a result of the report’s findings, the authors are calling for reform in how the NHS and NHSBT rebuild, collect and use data to guide policy decisions.

A number of recommendations were made. These include:

  • Digital teams to work with local NHS GP practices and commissioning groups, frontline staff, and community partners to identify new ways to serve the unmet needs of ethnic minority communities.
  • Engagement with the public and with members of black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, to co-design data policies based around community needs.
  • National healthcare organisations to pilot, implement and update guidelines and processes on ethnicity data coding in the NHS.
  • NHS England and NHSBT should partner with the NHS Race and Health Observatory to co-design data privacy guidelines with people of black and minority ethnic backgrounds, ensuring clarity and building trust in data collection and use.
  • NHSE, UKHSA, ICSs, researchers and digital teams should use insight from better-linked data to design by targeted research and design efforts in areas where ethnic health disparities need priority attention.

The research was carried out by TPXimpact.

Design lead, Megha Wadhawan, said:This report is a timely and important piece of work that unpacks digital’s powerful role while highlighting the wider systemic changes needed to better enable digital and healthcare teams to work towards reducing ethnic health inequalities.”