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Meet the Digital Leader: Karen Lewis – Director of Engagement and Innovation, Wales Co-operative Centre

Wales Co-operative Centre stalwart Karen Lewis talks about her tenure as Director of Communities and Inclusion and her hopes for promoting digital inclusion in Wales as the newly-appointed Director of Engagement and Innovation and Chair of the Digital Leaders Network in Wales in 2019, focusing on collaborative working among digital leaders.

How long have you been at the Centre and what positions have you held/will you hold?

I have worked with the Centre for almost 15 years – initially as a partner organisation working together on digital inclusion programmes, whilst I was employed at the BBC and the University of South Wales. I joined the Centre staff as Director of Communities and Inclusion about three years ago and have just moved in to a new role as Director of Engagement and Innovation.

What has been your proudest moment while at the Centre?

Hearing that we had been awarded the Welsh Government contract to deliver the successor digital inclusion programme for Wales, building on our work on Digital Communities Wales. I am particularly proud of the fact that we have been awarded double the funding of the previous programme, in recognition of the work that needs to be done in the field of health and social care. Exciting times ahead!

Do you have any other roles outside the Centre that have a focus on digital leadership?

I was the Digital Leaders’ Digital Champion for Wales in 2018 and I have just taken on the role of Chair of the Digital Leaders Network in Wales in 2019. Last year I was appointed to be the Wales member on the Communications Consumer Panel hosted by OfCom, where I am able to advise on the digital participation issues facing consumers and citizens across Wales.

In your view, what is the key to being a good Digital Leader?

Digital Leadership isn’t always about being the CEO or Senior Manager within an organisation – although it helps if it comes from the top of course. But it’s more about inspiring and influencing others to embrace what digital has to offer and working collaboratively to make things happen, whatever your day-to-day role might be. Digital Leaders don’t work alone – they are catalysts, with a can-do attitude, seeking out and identifying individuals and teams that can help achieve change and improve lives through adopting digital solutions. They are people-centred, searching for approaches that can transform services, improve access and offer long-term sustainable solutions to some of the big challenges facing society, the economy and the environment.

What do think will be the biggest changes in digital health and inclusion in the coming years?

Huge question! As technology develops at an ever-increasing rate, the opportunities presented to develop new approaches to delivering health care are infinite. One of the key challenges will be ensuring that NHS staff and patients have the digital skills required to benefit from the transformation that is already happening, but is likely to increase significantly in the coming years. Digital applications need to enhance patient care and ease the burden on overstretched NHS staff, not get in the way by being too complex, inaccessible and requiring lengthy specialist training.

In your view what are the key principles of effective digital health and inclusion?

The NHS is committed to delivering information and services digitally wherever appropriate, which should lead to reduced costs for providers. For patients, this can mean quicker and easier access to information and services and the chance to take more control over their own health. But putting the patient at the centre of service design is key. Without taking account of the patient’s needs and their capacity to access digital services, there will be a lack of equity in service delivery and availability, because  many of the people who could most benefit from digital health services are the least likely to be online.

In your experience, what are the biggest barriers to those in need getting access to digital health and inclusion provisions – including support from Digital Communities Wales?

We know that many people who are not able to access the internet are the same people who have most need of the services provided by the health and social care sector: older people, disabled people, people with long-term health conditions for example. This isn’t a simple case of not having access to a laptop, tablet, PC or smartphone – or indeed poor broadband availability – there are more complex barriers that prevent many people from benefiting from what the internet has to offer. These include poor confidence, low literacy skills, suspicion of the Internet, privacy fears, not seeing the need to go online and fear of ‘not being able to do it’.

What should digital transformation of healthcare look like?

Another huge question! From the patient’s perspective, if all patients are to benefit, then digital transformation must meet the needs of the most vulnerable. Health Boards and other providers should take a co-design approach to developing digital services, always putting the patient or service user at the heart of their thinking. When developing digital strategies and plans, providers need to bear in mind the digital exclusion agenda; this means understanding that a significant cohort of their patients will be unable to access digital services without support. Digital Communities Wales is able to advise on this and offer training and support; but the providers themselves need to take account of the challenge and build in assistance for people who need it. There are already excellent examples of this happening across Wales but it needs to be universal. Improving levels of digital participation in Wales is everybody’s business and true Digital Leaders in the NHS and the wider public sector will put this mission at the heart of their transformation plans.