Opinion

Bridging the digital health divide

By Radar Healthcare co-founder and CEO, Paul Johnson

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Increasing digital access to health and social care will undoubtedly help more people gain the support they need – but it wrongly assumes everyone is digitally mature.

Paul Johnson, co-founder and CEO of Radar Healthcare, questions whether the pursuit of digital transformation within healthcare risks leaving the most vulnerable behind?

Despite all the developments of the modern age, we continue to live in a society divided between the ‘health haves’ and the ‘health have-nots’. And the divide is stark.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that men born in the poorest areas of the UK will reach an average age of 73, while those in the richest will live to 83 years old.

That’s a decade more or less of life for men – and eight years for women – defined by postcodes.

The research added that people in deprived areas live most of their comparatively shortened life in ill health, with girls born in the poorest areas of England living 19 years less in good health than those born in the wealthiest.

In a perfect world, all healthcare and access to it would be equal. But that’s not currently the reality.

While it would be naive to think that technology is a health inequality cure all, I do passionately believe that the role it can play will help to significantly close the gap.

In fact, it’s this very belief which led me to co-found Radar Healthcare.

I once heard the quote, ‘a surgeon can save a life, the digital community can save thousands.’ and it’s a phrase that has remained with me.

Data and technological innovation can be life changing and lifesaving.

For example, with the help of health tech innovations, especially in the field of Artificial Intelligence, we can finally turn data into meaningful insight, identify health inequality trends and actions to address them.

Why childbirth mortality rates differ so much between different ethnicities.

We can get to grips with why HPV vaccination take up is comparatively low in deprived areas and consequently why cervical cancer rates are much higher for those coming from poorer backgrounds.

And we can help save the NHS the extra £4.8 billion a year said to be caused by health inequalities, and a further £31 billion vanishing in society from lost production.

I’ve seen for myself the hugely positive impact digital transformation can have on the lives of those working at the frontline of care and indeed their patients and service users.

And technologically speaking, we’re only just scratching the surface of what’s possible.

But, while it’s easy to get swept up in the possibilities of how innovation can tackle such a big health challenge, we shouldn’t assume that everyone is ready for this digital revolution.

Yes, digital access will open doors to care to more people. Yes, more remote technology will enable conditions to be better managed to help less reach crisis point.

Yes, machine learning will help predict health outcomes to enable prevention. That’s all true.

But it’s also true that not everyone is ready for that journey.

According to the report, Putting Patients First: Championing Good Practice in Combating Digital Health Inequalities, 10 per cent of UK adults do not use the internet – with half of these over the age of 75.

And just under half (49 per cent) of households with earnings of £6,000 – £10,000 didn’t have home internet.

But connectivity isn’t the only challenge that needs to be overcome.

Issues around understanding medical information and a lack of NHS website content being translated into other languages also play a factor in some people feeling left behind in the health tech revolution, for example.

There’s a real danger that in our pursuit of digitising care to tackle health inequalities we create new barriers – where access to quality care is not defined by access to technology.

As we transform care, we need to ensure no one is left behind and that we’re not just widening the gap between the health haves and the health have nots.

Read more by downloading the Radar Healthcare Global Health Inequalities report series.

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