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Digital Health Literacy – a prerequisite competency for the future of effective healthcare

February 2021 Stephen O'Farrell

Digital health literacy

Over just a few months the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated change in the way companies in all sectors do business.

In the healthcare sector, there is a heavy emphasis on the value of digital health throughout healthcare systems. The NHS Long Term Plan had already set a vision for mainstream use of digital services, but Covid-19 triggered an immediate rise in the use of online health information and services, according to a report by the Good Things Foundation. In March 2020 alone, online consultations doubled from around 900,000 to over 1.8 million.

How can we ensure online initiatives don’t exclude the very people they are designed to empower?

While pharma and the NHS concentrate on developing digital support programmes, and healthtech entrepreneurs on creating all-singing, all-dancing health-enhancing apps, the prospect of digital exclusion looms large.

In September 2020, NHS England asked NHS leaders to review service use and develop digitally-enabled care pathways to increase inclusion; ensure all patients receive the same level of access and care regardless of their digital preferences; and “ensure it does not affect health inequalities for others, due to barriers such as access, connectivity, confidence or skills.” Lessons learned from the Widening Digital Participation (WDP) programme could not be more timely. Recommendations that should be at the heart of a digitally enabled NHS include co-design with those who have low digital skills and face barriers to health care; improving population digital health literacy and support safe and healthy internet use; and improving people’s understanding of how their health and personal data is used.

According to new research from Digital Unite, commissioned by NHS Digital, 11.9 million people in the UK do not have the essential digital skills needed for day-to-day life.

Increasing numbers of web-based patient support programmes assume a level of digital competency that many with long-term health conditions simply do not have. At Aurora, in agreement with the WDP programme, we believe that pharma should act as advocates of digital health literacy in the patient community. We should aim to provide flexible and ongoing digital skills support targeted to the needs of the learner. That might include hands-on help or tuition on how to use online platforms during online ad-boards and patient co-creation panels to ensure that people who are less digitally savvy can participate and voice their needs and preferences. Patients should be engaged at an early stage, even while phase 3 trials are ongoing, to ensure that support programmes meet the needs of the wider patient community.

Existing schemes have identified common barriers such as confidence and skills when using digital platforms and the availability of information online. We believe that if we can overcome these barriers, we can significantly improve health literacy and, in turn, health outcomes.

Ultimately, producers of online health information and digital health initiatives must be mindful of where they are operating and the people they are seeking to support.

In a world of digital first health, we cannot assume that if we build it, they will come. The healthcare sector as a whole must start by building the foundations of equal access and appropriate skills.

If you want to hear more about how Aurora can help you reach your audience, in the right way, get in touch with the Patient Involvement team: piteam@auroracomms.com

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