Digital Poverty

In June 2022 the Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA) launched their UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review at the House of Lords in London. As a DPA Community Board Member, we heard how Digital Poverty is affecting millions across the UK, and what we can start doing to address digital poverty by 2030.

How Digital Poverty affects health and care

At MPFT NHS, our digital strategy has a clear theme on Digital Inclusion and Equality. Our ambition, at its most simple, is to ensure that everything we offer is as accessible and as easy to use as possible. As the DPA review states, “digitisation is pervasive”. In all walks of life it’s very difficult to do anything now without some sort of interaction with a digital system or a digitally enabled process. 

When our Trust ambition is to digitise to enhance care, we need to make sure we aren’t leaving people behind. We need to make sure we aren’t forcing people to attempt to use processes or systems that aren’t suitable or beyond their skills or confidence levels. At the very worst, we’ll be excluding people if they don’t have the device, skills, ability or internet access necessary.

That’s why our ambitions under our digital inclusion theme are so important. As we digitise and improve accessibility for those that are able to adopt digital, or choose to use digital in their care, we will concurrently release more capacity to support those individuals where digital isn’t appropriate.

A really simple example of this is a website chat bot. Some service users may be really comfortable using the internet and a personal device to view, amend of cancel their appointments at any time, 24/7 hours a day through our website. If there’s sufficient uptake on a chat bot for that service, our appointment booking phone lines become quieter and equally more accessible for those service users without the internet, or a device, or the skills or the intent to use a digitally supported process for appointment management. If we get it right, we make appointment management more accessible for everyone. Individuals that can won’t need to wait until 9am when the admin line is open to amend their booking, and the more that adopt the digital approach will pave the way to make the lines more accessible for those that do need to call at 9am.

Here’s some broad categories of focus

For service users, carers and staff that are interested in digital but lack skills or confidence, we’ll offer training and sign-posting to national, free to use training resources.

For service users that have no internet or no device, we’ll offer internet enabled loan equipment (and training support) where it is suitable to do so for the duration of their care.

Where accessibility is an issue, we’ll have tailored digital solutions to support these needs. Our NHS Parliamentary Future NHS award for our KOMP and Kraydel devices are an example of this approach.

The awareness challenge

In order to be able to support digital inclusion and accessibility for my communities, we need to be able to increase awareness of what opportunities and schemes there are available to support. If you’re already affected by digital poverty, you won’t be reading this blog! So how do we get the message out? How do we converge and subsequently intensify our efforts through pooled resources, signposting and collaboration? 

The DPA are essential here. By aligning to the cause and working as a collective we can get the message out in many different ways. Posters in schools and NHS waiting rooms, pamphlets advertising grants and offers in computer stores such as Curry’s. 

At MPFT, here’s what I think our plan is going to be…

Firstly, I won’t be reinventing the wheel. I’m approaching NHS colleagues, local authorities, education and the voluntary sector to baseline all existing schemes that the NHS should be tapping into and steering our service users towards. The LAs seem to be so much better at this than the NHS, and I want to join forces to ensure we’re equally competent at spotting when a digital inclusion intervention may be required or appropriate.

We’ll work with our major suppliers to introduce robust social responsibilities schemes. I want free devices from our hardware supplier we spend £1.5m a year with, I want free pay-as-you-go pre-funded SIM cards from our telephony contract. I want free Windows professional licenses from Microsoft for the £2m we give them in enterprise licences each year. I want all appropriate pre-used devices (laptops, tablets, smartphones) to be securely wiped and re-provisioned and either loaned or given away to service users, carers or staff that need them. Improving sustainability and digital inclusion. 

These approaches will supplement the existing accessible device loan processes we’re expanding and maturing.

We’ll work with our regional colleagues and national initiatives (Good Things Foundation) to introduce locality based training for anyone that needs it. From this I hope to grow our digital upskilling offer and increase the likelihood of our public wanting to and being able to use digital for health and care and anything else they might want to do.

We’ll make our own workforce aware of what’s available to them and the service users and carers they serve. We need to ensure that when we’ve got an established approach to support someone improve how they access and interact with our services, our staff are well trained and confident in knowing what to recommend and who can help and what to recommend next.

There’s lots of work to do

This is such an important area that I’m deeply passionate about. We can and we will change lives through this work. We’ll tackle social isolation, we’ll give new opportunities for people to learn digital skills, we’ll give people new opportunities to use equipment they’ve perhaps never been able to afford or use before. We’ll support families and carers with digitally enabled approaches to helping those with accessibility needs.

It’s an irony that we need to start somewhere and that journey begins with blogs, digital strategies, website updates and YouTube Videos. 

Once we’ve got these resources and approaches well defined and established, we can then commit to more accessible messaging in hard copy posters and pamphlets in places those that may need the support will see them. 

We’ll ensure our training, equipment and digital service offers are advertised in areas such as schools, libraries, churches, community support centres, service waiting rooms and food bank notice boards. We’ll offer a phone line that can be called for enquiries. 

All of these approaches will start us on a journey that I intend to progress, mature and embed over the next five years.

There are 8 years before our Digital Poverty Alliance ambition of no digital poverty by 2030. I want to be well on our way by 2026.

Keep an eye on these links 

We’ll keep our service users and carers updated on the digital systems we use and how they’re made available to enhance our care services here:

MPFT Digital Systems

We’ll update our online digital toolkit pages with sign posting to local and national digital inclusion offers and MPFT updates. Access our pages here:

MPFT Digital Toolkit

Martyn Perry, CHCIO Director of Digital Transformation & Deputy CDIO, Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust