Three-year digital health project says online skills could save NHS millions

Written by Rebecca Hill on 20 July 2016 in News

A training programme to help vulnerable people how to use the internet to access healthcare services has saved the NHS as much as £6 million in avoided GP and A&E visits in a year, according to a report published by the Tinder Foundation.

Improving people's digital skills reduces their trips to A&E - Photo credit: Flickr, Lydia

The foundation, which is a digital inclusion charity, led the £2.7m, three-year widening digital participation programme with the NHS from July 2013.

It aimed to help more than 220,000 people improve their digital skills so they could have access to the increasing number of health services provided online, and focused on those hardest to reach – for instance people with dementia, unpaid carers, those with learning difficulties and young people at risk of offending.

According to the final report of the programme, the project benefited both the people involved in the training and frontline services, with an estimated £6m saving due to reduced visits to the GP or A&E in the programme’s final year.

This breaks down as an estimated £3.7m saving in GP visits – the report said that 21% of those involved made fewer calls or visits to their GP – and £2.3m in reduced A&E visits, after 6% said they made fewer visits to A&E. Some 10% also made fewer calls to NHS 111.

The report said that the savings represented a return on investment of £6.40 for every £1 invested in the third year of the programme.

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For participants, the benefit was in being able to access more health information online – 41% said they access this online for the first time as a result of the scheme and 59% said they felt more confident using online tools to manage their health.

Some 29% said they went online for services such as finding a GP, 22% booking appointments online and 20% ordering repeat prescriptions online.

Meanwhile, the work also improved participants’ mental wellbeing, with 52% saying they felt less lonely and isolated as a result, and 62% saying they felt happier as a result of more social contact.

Among its qualitative results, the evaluation of the programme found that digital health tools and resources were often best introduced “by stealth”. This means using interventions that were not solely focused on digital, for instance introducing tablets as a memory tool for people with dementia as a way for them to learn about local history.

“This means that learners who have preconceptions about their digital capability or low confidence in this area are less likely to be put off,” the report stated. “By introducing the digital devices as a tool, people are more likely to see their relevance and then go on to use them for other purposes, such as online health.”

The report also identified a number of areas that prevent people getting online, which include limited capacity of UK online centres, a reliance on volunteers and the need to provide additional services.

Furthermore, one of the initiative’s smaller Innovation Pathfinder projects found that the slow procurement processes delayed installation of public WiFi.

However, there were also issues identified with getting staff on board, including proper training for staff and volunteers – especially when the two groups responded better to different training methods.

The report recommended that those working to improve digital health in the NHS focus on agile working, and engage with clinicians to allay any concerns about safety and security. In addition, those leading the programmes need to ensure there are enough digital champions on the staff to encourage further buy-in and to build momentum. 

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