Could increasing digital inclusion in the UK deliver financial benefits for the NHS?
With estimates that increased digital inclusion could save the NHS £899m between 2023-2032, our digital team investigates the financial benefits digital inclusion could unlock for an overstretched and underfunded NHS
Digital inclusion is described as having both the capability to get online and being able to make the most out of the internet (Citizens Online). Enabling individuals to get online and find health information or manage their symptoms could potentially reduce the number of people needing to go to A&E or their GP.
Between 2013 and 2020, the Widening Digital Participation programme, funded by NHSD and delivered by Good Things Foundation, ran 2 phases to widen digital participation in health and care through partnering with local organisations. In the first phase, the focus was on using community organisations to improve digital health literacy, which is defined as having the right skills to understand and utilise digital health information (NHS Health Education England).
The programme found that the return on investment in phase 1 was £6m per year for the NHS, which is a £6 return for every £1 spent. At a patient level, 56% of the 221,000 individuals supported in phase 1 went on to use the internet to find out information about health conditions, symptoms or advice for staying well, while 54% said they would now use the NHS website in the first instance for non-urgent medical advice.
One of the pathfinder projects from the second phase of the Widening Digital Participation programme, Seaview, aimed to increase access to healthcare for those sleeping rough. They used tablets to share photos of injuries or symptoms with St John’s Ambulance to get clinical advice. Ultimately the project supported rough sleepers to address unmet health needs, and though there isn’t currently a cost-benefit analysis, this could help to keep individuals out of A&E, reducing the strain on the NHS.
Another study, run in the Western Health and Social Care Trust in Northern Ireland, used online consultations between clinicians and patients in the diabetes service, resulting in a decrease in diabetes-related hospital appointments by 31% (HSL and Pexip, 2020). Given that diabetes costs the NHS £1.3bn per year (Wanless, 2002), supporting patients to manage their symptoms at home and stay out of hospital could result in cost-savings.
Cebr (The Economic Case for Digital Inclusion, 2022) has estimated that, through programmes such as the ones described above, individuals who receive digital skills support and therefore attend fewer GP appointments could save the NHS £899m between 2023 and 2032. This is just one of the benefits of digital inclusion - as we explore in our recent blog; Does increased digital inclusion improve health outcomes?, being digitally included can also result in individuals accessing a wider range of support online, from GP appointments and health advice to forums and social media promoting social connectedness.
As we heard last year through our Digital Inclusion Review in Wales, there is already a huge amount of support being delivered to help get individuals online across the UK, through government, local authorities and third sector organisations. These projects are vital in helping individuals access benefits of being online and to support the NHS to unlock the potential £899m in savings. Yet we need to do more - currently, if no action is taken, 5.8m individuals will still be digitally excluded in 2032 (Good Things Foundation, 2022), and will continue to miss out on essential services in an increasingly digital world.
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