A report published yesterday (18 July) shows an NHS programme to train vulnerable people to use the internet has led to over half feeling more confident to manage their health, 21% making fewer calls or visits to their GP and 6% making fewer trips to A&E. This behaviour change is estimated to have saved the NHS £6 million in avoided GP and A&E visits in just 12 months.
As a result of the Widening Digital Participation programme, run by NHS England and Tinder Foundation, 59% of learners report feeling more confident to use online tools to manage their health, 65% feel more informed and 52% say they feel less lonely with 62% saying they feel happier as a result of social contact, an important indicator for overall well being.
Searching online for symptoms and medications advice and using digital health tools such as apps help patients to take a more active role in monitoring and self-managing their condition. However, there are currently 12.6 million people living in the UK who lack the digital skills to use the internet in this way. These people tend to be older and more likely to be in poverty with high health and social care needs.
Matthew Swindells, National Director: Operations and Information at NHS England, said: “In the NHS we are fundamentally committed to addressing health inequalities and advancing the health and wellbeing of all families and communities across the country. Knowing how to navigate the internet can really help people to better understand their conditions, take more control of their care and lead healthier, more fulfilled lives.”
Helen Milner, Chief Executive at Tinder Foundation, which delivered the programme through its network of local UK online centres, added: “The Widening Digital Participation programme has clearly shown that digital has the power to affect people’s lives at scale. The programme has helped people to move non-urgent medical queries from face-to-face and emergency channels to online ones, saving an estimated £6 million a year to the NHS, as well as ensuring people have timely support when they need it. The programme has also supported the wider wellbeing of those supported, helping to address complex issues behind social exclusion and poor mental health.”
The programme has reached over 220,000 to date, targeting some of the hardest to reach communities, with 82% of those trained experiencing at least one form of social exclusion including unemployment, disability and homelessness. This follows the recommendation made by Martha Lane Fox in December 2015, to increase take-up of internet enabled services in health and care by designing digital tools and training programmes to ‘reach the ‘furthest first’.
Patients and doctors report a range of benefits due to the programme, including:
Increased awareness and understanding for patients living with long term conditions – Dr Ollie Hart works at Sloan Surgery in Sheffield who run a ‘digital surgery’ on site, which doctors can refer patients directly to. Dr Hart says: “The digital surgery has been particularly useful for people with long-term health conditions, things they’ll be living with and have to learn to manage for the rest of their lives, like diabetes, depression, chronic pain or arthritis. I’ve only got ten minutes – perhaps twenty – with a patient, and that’s often not enough time to answer all the questions or go through all the options.
“That used to mean squeezing in extra time, making repeat appointments, or sending someone away with leaflets. The digital surgery has given us another route. When people come back to see me, they’ve got a better idea of what they’re facing and how they want to proceed – and that’s great for me. I can make the diagnosis and suggest some treatment options but actually it’s not up to me to make the judgement about what comes next.”
Improved ability to self-manage – A woman from Edlington in Doncaster was referred to the Edlington Hilltop UK online centre by her GP for help managing her mental health, and as a result has started to organise her appointments, reconnect with health and social services, and rebuild her life. She says: “I would not understand my condition at all if it wasn’t for online information. I’d never used the internet before, so it was all a bit new. My online advisor put a support plan in place and I now have a social worker and a mental health nurse who is in regular contact with me to support my ADHD, Autism, depression and other mental health problems.
“It meant a lot to me to find out that I’m not so unusual, and that I’m not alone. I feel like I’m at peace with myself – like I have hope and light at the end of the tunnel, at long last.”
Reduced social isolation – Thanks to her local UK online centre, Age UK South Tyneside, a woman with vascular dementia has learnt how to maintain important relationships online. She says: “One of the first things I learned to do was use email and Skype, which has helped me to stay in touch with family and some of my friends.
“I was then shown how to use Google and the NHS Choices website. My tutor showed me how I could find out about my type of dementia and groups that could help me. We found activities I could do to slow down the progress of the dementia. I signed up for the Alzheimer’s Society’s ‘Singing for the Brain’ and found out about a dementia-friendly café. We looked at games online and I found a page with jigsaw puzzles that I can do. It’s not quite the same as a proper jigsaw but it keeps me thinking! A few of us now play scrabble on the internet too which has been great. We’ve got a team and we can challenge other teams or play each other.
“When I’m online I feel empowered to take back control over aspects of my life I thought I had lost.”