In an increasingly digital world, people who are digitally excluded are at risk of limited access to services and poorer health outcomes. This can be seen more acutely at the present time, when people are less able to meet due to the pandemic. Those who have characteristics that are protected under the Equality Act 2010 (age, disability, race) are less likely to have access to the internet and the skills to use it. The latest estimates suggest there are 11.9 million people in the UK who do not have basic digital skills and 5.3 million people who say they have never been online. This means that 22% of the population are currently unable to benefit from the digital transformation of health and other public services.
The digitally excluded are unable to do things that most of us take for granted every day, like going online to stay in touch with family and friends, shop and find basic health information. Since digital services are continuing to evolve, these people are falling further and further behind.
There is a strong correlation between digital exclusion and other forms of social exclusion. Some 60% of those without basic digital skills have no qualifications. There is also a strong correlation with age (74% are over 65) and disability (32%). On top of this, 75% say that the key reason they are not online is motivation.
Current strategies to increase the use of digital technologies that support the delivery of health and care services across the UK include the Widening Digital Participation programme led by the Good Things Foundation and funded by NHS Digital in England; Northern Ireland’s eHealth and Care Strategy (2016); the Scottish Government’s A Digital Strategy for Scotland (2017); and the Welsh Government’s Digital Inclusion Guide for Health and Care in Wales (2019).
There is evidence to suggest that the UK-wide focus on digital skills and projects to increase digital participation are having a positive impact. The Good Things Foundation programme, for example, demonstrates that digital skills can enable people to access relevant information and health care professionals. This helps them manage conditions and improve health and wellbeing indicators.
According to the UK Consumer Digital Index for 2019, more people are online than ever before. Yet 37% of UK citizens are still at risk of being left behind. 6.1 million (12%) are categorised as Digitally Disengaged (little or no digital behaviours). This is down from 7.6 million (15%) in 2018. By 2030, it is forecast that 4.5 million (8%) UK adults will remain Digitally Disengaged if no other digital skills interventions are implemented.
The lack of digital skills extends to the workforce too. 54% of the population uses the internet to work, a 15% increase since 2018. Worryingly, half of UK employees (53%) do not have the Essential Digital Skills needed for work and only one-third (34%) of employees say their workplace gives them digital skills support. In 2017 the Royal College of Nursing and Health Education England published Improving Digital Literacy, which introduced a digital skills framework for the health and social care workforce.
Engaging the socially excluded and building their confidence to use technology are critical in addressing digital exclusion. This debate will enable us to consider the implications of digital exclusion and help the RCN develop a strategy to minimise its effects.
Equality Act 2010, c. 15. (Accessed 14 September 2020).
Good Things Foundation (2020) NHS Widening Digital Participation. (Accessed 14 September 2020).
Health and Social Care Board (2016) eHealth and care strategy for Northern Ireland. (Accessed 14 September 2020).
Health Education England and Royal College of Nursing (2017) Improving Digital Literacy. (Accessed 14 September 2020).
Lloyds Bank UK (2019) Consumer Digital Index 2019. (Accessed 14 September 2020).
Northern Ireland Department of Health (2016) eHealth and Care Strategy. (Accessed 14 September 2020).
Scottish Government (2017) Realising Scotland’s full potential in a digital world: a digital strategy for Scotland. (Accessed 14 September 2020).
Welsh Government (2019) Digital Inclusion Guide for Health and Care in Wales. (Accessed 14 September 2020).
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Page last updated - 21/09/2020