Digital health literacy goes global

19 Sep 2017

Written by Gill Rowlands, Professor of General Practice at Newcastle University's Institute of Health and Society.

In June 2017, I was invited to make a presentation to the World Health Organisation on the importance of ‘Digital Health Literacy’ -having the digital skills to get hold of, understand, and use digital technologies and digital information for health. 

Telemedicine (remote exchange of health information such as blood pressure between patients and doctors) and telehealth (remote monitoring of an individual such as sensors to monitor falls) bring many benefits in better illness management and illness prevention. However, whilst the opportunities emerging for health in the digital information and technology fields are huge – and growing daily – there is a real and worsening digital divide. Those who would benefit most have the least access, both in digital skills and in physical access.

This is where the work of the Good Things Foundation, and the Widening Digital Participation programme, commissioned by NHS Digital, has so much to add. Unlike many other programmes, this work actively focuses on, and reduces, the digital divide. It is specifically designed for people likely to have lower digital skills such as older people, and socio-economically deprived and otherwise excluded groups. It is locally embedded, and aims to develop self-sustaining momentum through developing local partnerships and local digital champions and volunteers. In phase 1 of the programme (2013-2016), 221,941 people have been trained and 387,470 people reached (including those that have been trained). Over half of the learners went on to find information on the internet about health conditions, symptoms or tips for staying healthy, and said that they would now go to the internet before consulting their GP, to look at sites such as NHS Choices.

The NHS Widening Digital Participation programme therefore puts England right at the forefront of the drive to improve digital skills amongst those who need it most. This approach should not only empower citizens to take control of their health, but also reduce the burden on health services as people take the opportunities to manage their own health.

For more information on the programme please contact, or you can visit the NHS WDP programme page or Medium blog.