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The digital revolution of health and care services in Wales risks excluding the most vulnerable, says new report

As the NHS and social care sector in Wales progresses its digital transformation agenda, there is a real danger that those citizens most in need of accessing health services will be left behind, due to their lack of digital skills and access.

According to the report – Digital Inclusion in Health and Care in Wales – one in four people with limiting long-standing illness, disability or infirmity are not currently using the internet, compared with only 10% of those without such a condition. Most crucially, 25% of men and 32% of women aged 65 to 74 in Wales are not online, compared with only three percent of 16 to 49-year olds.

The report, commissioned by the Wales Co-operative Centre and the Carnegie UK Trust, was launched at today’s (Wednesday, 7 November) Digital Health and Care Conference Wales on the same day the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care Services, Vaughan Gething AM, announced a £3m investment to tackle digital exclusion within health and care.

Karen Lewis, Director of Communities and Inclusion at the Wales Co-operative Centre, said:

“Tackling Wales’ digital divide in health is a major public policy issue that requires urgent attention. The rapid growth in digital technologies brings transformative opportunities for people to become more active partners in their own care, interacting with services with the convenience they have come to expect in other areas of their lives. However, what we still find is that many citizens with the greatest need for health and care provision are also those with the lowest level of digital skills, with lack of access, skills, interest, motivation and trust increasingly the reasons for them not going online.”

Douglas White, Head of Advocacy at Carnegie UK Trust said:

“Digital technology has great potential to tackle inequality and transform access to public services but we know that those who could benefit the most from technology are often the least likely to use it. We need urgent action to address this. We have been very pleased to work with the Welsh Co-operative Centre over the past year to examine how to respond to the digital challenge in health and social care in Wales. The report published today sets out the priorities and gives a clear road map for action.”

Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, Vaughan Gething AM, said:

“As this report shows, increasing digital inclusion can improve health and well-being. Giving people the skills to access the right information and services has been shown to enable them to better manage conditions and reduce the burden on NHS services. That is why I am announcing an extra £3m over three years to improve digital inclusion among health and care professionals and the public.”

The report identifies many examples of digital inclusion good practice in health and care settings in Wales, particularly through Digital Communities Wales, a dedicated digital inclusion programme delivered by the Wales Co-operative Centre and funded by Welsh Government. One of the initiatives run by the project is Digital Heroes, where young people befriend older people and introduce them to digital technology, often with inspiring and transformative results.

Despite a number of Health Boards in Wales delivering vital work in combating digital exclusion through staff training and support with online patient portals and telehealth services, the report highlights the majority of Health Boards in Wales are still making no reference to digital inclusion in their digital strategies or Integrated Medium Term Plans.

Bob Gann, author of the report and former programme director of Widening Digital Participation, the national digital inclusion programme for the NHS in England, said:

“The messages from the report are clear. We need to bring digital inclusion higher up the agenda, and embed it in the mainstream of health and care in Wales. We need to be able to measure the impact of digital inclusion through outcomes which are relevant to the NHS and social care – including increased self-care and appropriate use of services.

“And as we rethink some our approaches to digital inclusion for health and care, we will be most successful if we work with patients and service users to co-produce solutions which matter to them, and are accessible and well-designed.”


Digital Inclusion in Health and Care in Wales: summary report

Residents at Woffington House care home enjoy the benefits of digital technology

Patients Know Best is an online portal which gives patients instant access to their medical records