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New guide sets out tips for preventing patient digital exclusion

by Emily Roberts
21 July 2023

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Giving staff time to support patients, providing choice, and appointing digital inclusion champions are some of the steps general practices are being asked to take to reduce digital exclusion and help prevent widening health inequalities.

NHS England has published a new guide for GP practices, primary care networks (PCNs), and integrated care boards (ICBs), that includes 10 top tips for strengthening digital inclusion, particularly among under-served and marginalised communities.

It defines digital inclusion for patients as ‘having easy and affordable access to a suitable device with sufficient data and internet connectivity, and the digital skills to use them safely and confidently to access NHS services’.

According to figures from Ofcom published in 2022, around one in 20 UK households still do not have access to the internet and around 10 million adults lack basic digital skills, the guide said. It also highlighted that limited internet use is associated with economic deprivation.

‘Offering support to patients who struggle to use digital tools will help prevent further widening of health inequalities’, it added.

NHS England has worked with the charity Good Things Foundation to produce the guide, which draws on examples of good practice shared by more than 30 primary care organisations and voluntary community and social enterprise organisations in England

It has identified 10 tips for making digital access more inclusive and urges practices to ‘invest time’ to find out what works best for their area.

The advice includes:

  • Ensuring GP surgery website pages and digital tools are usable and accessible, so as many patients as possible can find what they need quickly and easily.
  • always providing choice by offering patients support to use digital tools or access routes and  making it clear that they can continue to telephone or visit the surgery to request care.
  • giving staff time and ‘permission’ to support/ teach patients who are learning how to use digital tools, such as submitting an online request or asking for a repeat prescription online.
  • practices appointing and training digital inclusion champions to make it easier to make it part of a practice’s ‘business as usual’.
  • surgeries finding out what support is available in their area around digital access and skills and signpost patients to available services.
  • using multiple communication routes and languages to tell patients how they can get help to use digital tools. These could include accessible leaflets, radio, social media, or direct targeting by phone, text or email.