4 Ways To Close The Digital Health Divide In A Cost Of Living Crisis

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How Does The Digital Divide Impact Health?

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly exacerbated existing inequalities in the UK. 61% of survey respondents recently stated they feared a price rise for their broadband. As the cost of living crisis continues to grip the nation, the public seek to reduce their usage of essentials such as food, fuel and internet usage.

Digital poverty and its damaging effects can be felt within education, social mobility in the workplace and significantly, healthcare. 21% of those in lower socioeconomic households are resigned to using the internet via a smartphone only, making it difficult to search for reliable health content. A shocking 6% - that's 1.7 million households - lack any internet access at all. This is far from a small minority that are unable to access up-to-date health information and guidance.

A lack of digital skills also makes it harder to access health information. Vulnerable and older adults without digital skills were cut off from social support networks and unable to access important health information. This information has dire outcomes for patient health outcomes, as those most likely to need healthcare are least likely to have strong digital skills.

By breaking down barriers of digital exclusion, we can engage, support and care for those most marginalised in our society. So, how can we do this?

1. Have Timely Health Advice Readily Available In Your Practice

By providing an information kiosk or touch screen with timely, current healthcare information, you can automatically increase accessibility to necessary health guidance for your patients. You can ensure the information you share is:

  • Targeted to the specific needs of your local population
  • Accurate and devoid of fake news
  • Timely, regularly updated information
  • Available in multiple languages
  • Accessible by patients who may be audibly or visually impaired
  • Easy to understand

2. Target information campaigns to segments of your patient population

We can really engage patients in their healthcare by providing them with relevant information. After all, a 25 year old woman with endometriosis is more likely to read information about their risk of cervical cancer than preventative information for dementia. Segment population groups to send targeted information to, so that the information is relevant to their health profile.

As people are more likely to have smartphones instead of a desktop device, you can go one step further and ensure that your campaigns are readable on mobile devices.

Ensure your email campaigns are crafted with mobile readability in mind so patients don’t disengage with the information. Communicate information by SMS so people without a smartphone or internet access can still consume valuable healthcare information that you want to send to them. This is incredibly easy to manage with our Campaign module.

But most importantly, ensure you are able to swiftly collect and update patient email addresses and phone numbers, so you don’t run into a pesky ‘failed to deliver’ or ‘this email has bounced back’ response.

3. Ask patients if they currently have internet access

Sometimes the simplest thing we can do can get overlooked. We can easily assume that everyone in 2022 will have some kind of access to the internet, but someone may not have:

  • A reliable wi-fi connection
  • A working device to access the internet
  • The ability to afford their broadband bills right now

By asking them, we can normalise the conversation around it and communicate information to them in a way accessible and tailored to them. If practitioners are aware that it is predominantly patients from a non English speaking background that lack internet access, for example, they can ensure health content in other languages is more prominently displayed in waiting rooms.

We can also inform them of social tariffs for broadband they may be eligible for which enable them to have easy access to affordable internet. Some people may be hesitant around disclosing a lack of internet access at home to reception or clinical staff, due to the stigma.

Asking patients a question as part of their check-in process on a self arrivals machine or in a survey provides extra discretion, privacy and increases the likelihood of them answering honestly. Asking in the form of a survey also lessens the workload on your staff, and allow you to gain more responses in an efficient manner.

4. Ask patients if they are able to adequately navigate the internet 

Whilst patients may have access to an internet connection at home, they may not be able to navigate it well enough to find relevant and accurate health information for them. After all, a whopping 40% of adults have low health literacy skills in the UK. By providing easily accessible information in our waiting rooms, be it on digital signage screens or on a check-in kiosk, we can strengthen their digital health literacy.

As healthcare providers, providing preventative healthcare information should be of the utmost priority as it can help keep overall healthcare costs down, and more importantly, lead to better health outcomes for our patients.

We can also debunk fake news patients may have come across, and provide multimedia content which is engaging, informative and accessible. Whilst it can be time consuming, costly and out of our remit as a general practice to teach the public digital skills, we can utilise easy to navigate digital solutions to provide our patients with vital health care information. 

Is Increasing Digital Access Necessary?

As the cost of living crisis continues, widening digital access within our waiting rooms is not just a ‘nice-to-have’, but a necessity. We know inequalities across every sphere of society have drastically widened. We know those most affected and vulnerable, will be focused on immediate concerns such as food, fuel and heating.

They won't be looking out for signs of poor health in themselves. Using every avenue available to ensure we can provide easy access to health information isn’t just vital, but truly life saving.

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