If the increasing digital divide is not addressed, many people will be unable to benefit from the ongoing digital transformation of healthcare

30th June 2021

The advancements being made in digital health are truly exciting. Technology has the power to drive huge benefits in NHS cost efficiency whilst revolutionising patient outcomes and experience. It has the potential to help provide essential services that many wouldn’t usually have access to. New digital channels offer an extensive platform for the NHS to try and engage patients from disadvantaged areas, as well as giving a more convenient choice to patients who are less likely to engage with clinicians in person, such as homeless people and those with debilitating illnesses or mental health issues.

Throughout the past 18 months of the pandemic, the NHS has showed how quickly it can adopt new processes by smoothly moving many services online. This has dramatically reduced the pressure on frontline NHS staff, particularly through the automation of admin services such as online appointment management and accessing health records. We have also seen an unexpected number of the public embrace these changes with open arms. However, this intense focus on digitization has potentially left many patients out in the cold as many people still cannot, or will not, engage via digital channels.

In October 2020, The Good Things Foundation reported that over 9 million people in the UK cannot use the internet without help, and 7 million people have no internet access at home, which means a huge portion of the population are not benefitting from the digital transformation taking place in this country. This digital divide is a scary issue, with the research clearly highlighting the link between poor health, shorter life expectancy and living in a deprived area. Therefore, any developments in healthcare services that do not cater to all capabilities, including those who are completely offline, are contributing to health inequality.

A report from the ONS in 2019 also shows 25.9 million people are reliant on costly pay-as-you-go phone services to communicate, which can lead to dangerous and isolating digital exclusion when accessing healthcare. Lockdowns during the pandemic only served to further widen this gap by trapping millions of people in their homes with no means of communicating with the outside world, particularly those who lost jobs and could not afford to top up phone credit or keep paying their phone and broadband bills.

While the shift to virtual appointments does work well for many, there are many recognised potential obstacles when implementing them at scale, such as patients not having the access or skills to use these platforms. Another perspective is that many people simply do not want to get involved in the digital world when it comes to their health. Some prefer to see their doctor in person, as they find video or telephone consultations reduces their valued human interaction. Others are nervous about the possibility that not being face to face with their clinician may reduce the chances of other medical problems being noticed visually or whilst in more casual conversation during the appointment.

Concerns around sharing their health data online is also prevalent amongst the general public, and it is vital that security is always a top priority. RCS and future messaging channels can be implemented in healthcare to bring the familiarity patients have with social media to their healthcare communications. Features such as “Verified sender” give the patient assurance that they are not at risk of fraud and create much-needed trust in digital health messaging.

So how to tackle the divide?

It has been suggested that there are three main barriers to digital inclusion; access (usually through lack of funds to afford devices), motivation, and skills.

NHS’ Widening Digital Participation Programme report makes many actionable recommendations including creating a network of ‘digital health hubs’ to build digital health literacy and improve access to services, as well as digital inclusion being an integral part of all future health, care and wellbeing strategies. These suggestions are actually vital in creating a safe healthcare environment where everyone can benefit from new advancements.

Current digital inclusion initiatives show that becoming digitally competent drives a wide range of benefits including reducing isolation, increasing confidence and improving wellbeing. The Online Centres Network is one example, which is made up of thousands grassroots organisations, all working in communities around the country to provide people with the skills they need to access digital technology. This vital work is making strides in tackling the problem, but more needs to be done from within the system to give the support needed to safeguard every single person across the UK.

On 25 March 2021, a document published by NHS England highlighted the fact that “the pandemic has shone a brighter light on health inequalities” and sets out priorities for tackling them. It discusses “total triage,” making it clear that NHS systems will be expected to “support practices to increase significantly the use of online consultations.”. NHS England defines “total triage” as a model in which “every patient contacting the practice first provides some information on the reasons for contact and is triaged before making an appointment.”.

As we emerge from the other side of the pandemic, there needs to be a crucial turning point to ensure that people who aren’t digitally enabled are not at a disadvantage when it comes to their health, wellbeing or any public services. With person-centred digital transformation, we can find ways to implement digitally inclusive processes at scale, and play our part in helping others to learn how digital health can change their lives.


Healthcare Communications’ focus is on ensuring no patient is ever left behind so that everyone is given a voice within their healthcare. We have created end-to-end patient journey solutions which are fully inclusive for all capabilities, with multi-channel communications including phone and paper-based options for those who are not digitally enabled. It’s impossible to reach all patient demographics using just one mode. To find out more get in touch at enquiries@healthcomm.uk or call 0845 9000 890.