Homeless man finds shelter, and the online skills to improve his health

18 Mar 2015

By Bob Gann, Programme Director – Widening Digital Participation, NHS England.

Less than 6 months ago Ron was living in a tent by the side of the road. Poor mental and physical health and a gambling addiction had left him out of work, homeless and surviving on out of date food. Now Ron has found housing and is gaining the skills he needs to improve his health and wellbeing - thanks to the help of a local charity which works with the Good Things Foundation’s NHS England Widening Digital Participation programme. From being scared of computers, Ron has now used consumer reviews on NHS Choices to choose a new GP practice and books his GP appointments online. Getting online has empowered Ron to navigate the system and has literally transformed his life.

During Be Online fortnight in February, I took the opportunity to go up to Hull and meet a digital inclusion legend, Ron Dale. Ron’s experience summarises vividly just why NHS England is investing in the Widening Digital Participation programme with Good Things Foundation – so much so that his story has become a regular feature in conference presentations at the highest levels. I felt the least I could do was to meet him in person and shake his hand.

I met Ron, along with other learners and volunteers, at the new premises of Inspire Communities, one of the six NHS Widening Digital Inclusion flagships and a UK online centre.

Dave Edeson, Chief Officer at Inspire Communities Hull told me: “Ron was living in a tent on the side of the A63, just outside Hull and heating noodles and coffee with a candle. He’d been there through a really difficult winter and Ron told us he was afraid he was going to die in that tent.”

“We set up meetings with two local homeless charities which led to Ron applying for a space in a local hostel and being housed within a month. We were also keen to reduce the worry about benefit sanctions, so Ron started to attend our job club twice weekly where he received help with his job searches to meet his JCP obligations. This, along with support to manage his gambling addiction and to adopt better money management strategies, really started to make a difference to Ron’s wellbeing.”

To support his search for employment, Inspire Communities also helped Ron develop his computer skills by introducing him to the Learn My Way website.

“He had very little experience of computers before he came to us,” Dave explained, “and he was actually quite afraid of using them, but the Learn My Way resources helped him build up his skills gradually and he’s now conducting all his job searches independently. When it comes to computers and the internet, he now relies on Inspire Communities more for access than actual support.”

Before long, the Inspire Communities team saw the opportunity for Ron to use his new skills to help improve his health.

“Once Ron had moved in to the hostel, he was about 4 miles away from the GP he was registered at,” continued Dave. “He was also not particularly happy there, so was keen for a fresh start with a new doctor.

“We helped Ron get familiar with the NHS Choices website and use the ‘Services Near You section, to find nearby GPs. He had a look at the reviews, opening times etcetera, picked a surgery and after printing off a registration form and dropping it into the surgery he was registered in less than a week.”

Ron was really pleased with his new surgery and the services they provided - “He suffers from particularly severe anxiety issues and dealing with receptionists that weren’t familiar with him and his situation had caused problems in the past, and even trying to get through to book an emergency appointment in that narrow, early morning window had proved stressful.

“So Ron was really happy that the surgery let him book appointments and order repeat prescriptions online. These services went a long way to alleviating his anxiety, especially once the Inspire Communities showed him how the system worked and how easy it was to make an appointment.”

After booking an appointment to talk about everything from arthritis in his knees to his emotional well being, Ron is feeling better than ever about the accessibility of services and the quality of care.

Dave said: “What may be an annoyance to some of us can be a stressful episode for others, so he’s much happier with booking appointments online at his leisure, rather than the constant engaged tone he used to hear before. And he’s much happier with his new GP too. Not only is it closer but he says the conversations he’s having with the doctor are making him feel much more included in decisions about his healthcare.

The online health services provided by NHS now plays an integral role in Inspire Communities’ overall service offering.

“At Inspire Communities we pride ourselves in breaking down barriers and making life easier for people, and the support from the NHS Choices site and the GP online system has helped us do that for Ron in a big way - we look forward to doing it for even more of our clients.”

Thanks to getting online and the fantastic support from Inspire Communities, things continue to look up for Ron, who proudly showed me the keys to his new flat that he’d moved into the week before. “I’m still keeping the tent in case I need it one day”, said Ron as I left, “but I feel much more confident about the future”

Ron’s story has featured regularly in presentations about NHS England’s Widening Digital Participation programme. At a recent presentation I gave at mHealthHabitat in Leeds, cartoonist Tom Bailey captured the story as it was told. Here’s Ron before (in his tent cooking on a candle), and after (managing his health online and moving into his flat).

You can read more about Good Things Foundation and NHS England’s Widening Digital Participation programme at nhs.tinderfoundation.org.