Digital inclusion and older people

23 May 2013

Emma Solomon OBE is Managing Director of Digital Unite, an independent organisation that helps people, particularly older people, to understand and use computers, the internet and other digital technology.

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Having the skills to use digital technology is a must-have in today’s modern society. It can save us time and money, make us feel better connected, less lonely and better informed.

For the citizen as a patient, having digital skills means being able to book and cancel doctors’ appointments more easily, order repeat prescriptions, improve the access to information and services to support their own care and that of others.

By 2015, the NHS Commissioning Board aims to guarantee every patient the opportunity of online access to their own medical records. This is an ambitious target made even more challenging because today in 2013, many older people still either aren’t online or don’t have good enough digital skills to use such a service.

In a Department of Health report last year called ‘Digital First’ the idea of ‘virtual clinics’ where appointments would be conducted via Skype and test results delivered by text message, was suggested as a way of saving £2.9 billion. A controversial idea that would, in our present situation, create a two-tier health service for those who are or are not online.

There are 7.4 million people in the UK who have never used the internet, of which 6.3 million are aged over 55 years.  Being digitally excluded means having less and diminishing access to public and commercial services, to information and advice and to social interaction, all of which adversely impacts on wellbeing.

Getting old is not easy, particular for the less well off. One third of people over the age of 65 admit to feeling lonely some, most or all of the time and 20% of older people are affected by depression.

While being online isn’t a silver bullet for the many challenges of ageing, Digital Unite research has shown that of those people over 55s who are using the internet, four out of five (86%) said it had improved their lives. 72% said that being online had helped reduce their feelings of isolation and 81% said that using the internet makes them feel part of modern society. In addition 20% of older learners in a Digital Unite social housing learning programme felt their understanding of health related issues had improved as a result of being online.

For many ‘offliners’ and those with low digital literacy the biggest barriers to digital usage are lack of knowledge and confidence. Fortunately bringing people online requires only the most basic digital literacy, the challenge is making that happen in a supportive way.

So how can the health profession help with this?

One easy way is signposting. Make available in surgery waiting rooms information on how patients can develop or improve their digital skills. Whether that is beginners’ computer courses at the local library or local computer tutors. At Digital Unite, for example, our quality-assured network of tutors provides home-based tuition. UK Online Centres also has a network of centres in England where people can go to get help online.

The BBC Webwise website offers a range of videos and resources to help people develop basic online skills and here at Digital Unite we have an extensive and free collection of online learning guides for both beginners and more advanced users.

Holding a taster event where people can go along to try out digital technology in a guided way is hugely impactful in helping non-users to get online. Our award-winning Spring Online campaign, which sees hundreds of these events taking place across the UK every April, is testament to that. When one 100 year old lady is prompted to go and buy a laptop after her Spring Online experience, we know it has made a difference.

Finally, a little enthusiasm and reassurance goes a long way towards making people feel able to participate in this digital age and we can all play a small part in trying to help beginners and more cautious people get online.

For more information about Digital Unite visit www.digitalunite.com or call 0800 228 9272.

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