Digital skills for patients

Version 1.1, 27 July 2023

This guidance is part of the Education and training section of the Good practice guidelines for GP electronic patient records.

Digital literacy

Levels of digital literacy (of which basic IT skills are one element) are gradually increasing across the population of the UK.  We are now in an age where it is possible to send emails and text messages, and do video consultations, even with elderly, frail, patients.  Patients not only need to have the skills to use digital tools, but they also need to have access, and the motivation to do so. 

IT skills and training for patients and understanding motivations to use digital services are important considerations in creating a digitally inclusive NHS.  

In the UK it is estimated that around 11 million people still lack the skills to use the internet effectively and 5 million never go online.  Literacy in general, particularly reading and writing skills, has an impact on patient’s ability to use digital skills, as does digital poverty.   

The NHS Long-Term Plan underlined the importance of technology in the future NHS.  To interact with the NHS, and to access health information and advice, patients will increasingly be encouraged to have digital skills.  This includes being able to understand online GP consultations (and completing the relevant digital forms) as well as being able to participate in video consultations when seeing their GP.

The long-term aim is to create an NHS that makes the most of the best technology and innovation, designing easy to use services that follow existing national usability and accessibility standards.  An NHS that meets the challenges of a growing and ageing population, delivers more choice, enables greater personalisation of care, and is fit for the future.

The recommendations from an independent review of the digital skills needed by the future healthcare workforce led by Prof Eric Topol (the Topol Review) included the importance of skills development for citizens, patients, and carers, for example:

  • engaging and educating the public about genomics and digital healthcare technologies
  • collaborating with patient and carer organisations to support patient education
  • needs-based targeted education and support through existing patient support provision

How practices can support patients to increase their digital skills and confidence

Support is available throughout England to help people develop their skills and confidence to use digital technology.  Local services can be found through the Online Centres Network, a charitable network of local centres providing training and support.  The network comprises thousands of community organisations and local authorities.  Services also include English literacy training for people using English as a second language.  Classroom-based courses are also provided by Age UK.

The availability of IT access, training and support for patients will vary across the country.  Local libraries may also be an option for some patients by offering basic digital skills courses, including the option for continued access to computers and wi-fi.   

Assuming someone has the opportunity and support to get online, there is also free online training for the public on how to use a computer and the internet from Learn My Way

NHS.UK has produced some Easy Read Guides to Online Services for patients, including guidance for practice staff on supporting patients with learning disabilities.

Content includes guidance on:

  • finding and registering with a GP practice
  • booking an appointment
  • ordering a repeat prescription
  • seeing your health record

NHS.UK also provides helpful videos about using online services, aimed at practices and their staff.

Social prescribing

A growing number of primary care networks (PCNs), as part of wider population health management, are building more formal links with local groups helping residents with digital and language skills.  Social prescribing link workers (SPLW) employed by PCNs seek to address patients’ needs in a holistic way and aim to support individuals to take greater control of their health.  Practices can refer to SPLWs who will signpost patients to services and, if necessary, support them to access those services, should a need be identified.  This can have an impact beyond just access to the practice, with benefits for the health and wellbeing of whole families.

For an insight into the holistic approach of social prescribing there are a number of case studies on the NHS England website.


  • Find out what, if any, provision there is locally for patients to develop their digital and IT skills.
  • Ensure that your practice has an easy to use, accessible website with simple online journeys for your patients.
  • Ensure that practice staff are competent and confident to explain online services to patients, including giving explicit direction.
  • Evaluate your online services regularly to ensure they are working as they should be.
  • Carry out an annual review of your patients register to identify patterns of digital use and possible local barriers and issues
  • Consider how you might provide help to patients who want to use online services but lack the skills or confidence needed. Involve patient participation groups (PPG) in helping to publicise online services in practices, as well as providing information on practice websites.
  • Tell your patients what is available to help them.
  • Find out if there is a local ‘Digital Champion’ in IT for patients.
  • Make use of the social prescribing link worker service which will have information on the community programmes locally that may be able to offer support on education and improving digital skills at local level. This may involve local voluntary organisations as well as libraries.

We must remember that whatever digital systems we put in place, we need to keep effective management of patient demand and support equitable access to care.  You can read more about health equalities and digital inclusion in another article in this series.

Other helpful resources