Digital health – a generational game changer

Civica’s Steve Brain discusses how governments have a unique opportunity to digitally transform healthcare as over-70s demand more virtual services post-pandemic

The older generation has increasingly welcomed technology since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic

Steve Brain

A global crisis may not have been the ideal catalyst for change, but the COVID-19 pandemic has nonetheless provided the impetus for governments to accelerate the delivery of digital health services for the entire population.

From local GP surgeries, to major hospitals; the past year has seen an unprecedented shift towards data-driven digital solutions right across our health and care services.

For all of us, the pandemic forced long periods of prolonged isolation.

Nowhere, perhaps, was this felt more acutely than among the elderly, who were most at risk from COVID.

Expanded digital literacy, however, helped older generations to keep in touch with friends and loved ones during the darkest days of the pandemic.

The rapidly-growing appetite for digital public services across all age groups comes at a crucial time for governments across the four nations of the UK

And this age group is now even more digitally active and tech savvy, as our latest A Word From The Wise research reveals.

One year on from our first round of research, we’ve seen, across all generations, from pupils to pensioners, a growing appreciation for the positive impact that data-driven digital technologies have on their daily lives.

Last year, 79% of the people we surveyed said they trusted public bodies to hold and use their data. This year that figure has increased to 82%.

Furthermore, almost three quarters of those aged over 70s appreciate the role digital technology plays in helping elderly or vulnerable adults to live independently for longer.

A turning point towards a digital future?

Over 70s are the UK’s biggest healthcare ‘customers’.

And with face-to-face appointments and paper prescriptions turning digital due to the pandemic, there are many in this age group that want digital health services to continue once the crisis is behind us.

There is growing demand for digital appointment booking and ordering repeat prescriptions online, for example. And this is a remarkable turnaround from only a few years ago, when health services had to strike a delicate balance between digitising and maintaining more-traditional forms of patient interaction.

The rapidly-growing appetite for digital public services across all age groups comes at a crucial time for governments across the four nations of the UK.

Last September saw the launch of the National Data Strategy, followed in June of this year by the draft policy paper Data saves lives: reshaping health and social care with data.

The message is clear: as more and more people across all age groups engage digitally with health services and share vital data, health providers will become better able to provide services which are more innovative, accessible, and tailored to the unique needs of everyone.

Leading the public services digital race

At last year’s techUK Building the Smarter State conference, Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Julia Lopez, advocated for government services to be digital by default to drive efficiency and personalisation.

Our research shows that the demand for this ‘digital first’ mentality is – crucially – being driven to a significant extent by people in older age groups, who have traditionally been less enthusiastic about the role of digital public services.

From local GP surgeries, to major hospitals; the past year has seen an unprecedented shift towards data-driven digital solutions right across our health and care services

A fifth (20%) of the over 70s surveyed now interact with government services online more than they did before the pandemic.

In fact, almost three quarters (73%) trust government websites the most for their COVID-19 information.

Healthcare remains the most-trusted public sector body when it comes to use of data (82%), and older people want to increase their use of tech to monitor their health once the pandemic is over.

In fact, 59% of the UK’s over 70s feel confident using devices such as iPads, smartphones, and wearables to improve their health, safety, and wellbeing.

And many are now more willing to share health data to improve their quality of care.

This was shown during the pandemic when almost 4,500 COVID-19 patients were treated in their own homes as part of the ground-breaking ‘virtual hospital’ set up by consultants from Watford General Hospital.

Patients submitted their own pulse and oxygen saturation readings throughout the day, while remaining in their own homes. And, post pandemic, there is an opportunity for this self-service healthcare to be adopted to treat various conditions.

As more people across all age groups engage digitally with health services and share vital data, health providers will become better able to provide services which are more innovative, accessible, and tailored to the unique needs of everyone

Better trust in digital

Increasing demand for patient and client care across all age groups puts frontline personnel like doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals under pressure.

They need access to robust, reliable information at the point of care to make the best decisions in the interests of their patients.

The message is clear: as more and more people across all age groups engage digitally with health services and share vital data, health providers will become better able to provide services which are more innovative, accessible, and tailored to the unique needs of everyone

As citizen trust in the use of digital services increases, healthcare providers can deliver a range of transformational efficiencies such as mobile working, improved information sharing among teams and partners, more integrated care plans, and deeper insight from data.

Patients across all age groups are increasingly more comfortable with technology and healthcare is starting to lead the way with innovative tech.

For example, Augmented Reality (AR) is enabling computer-generated features to provide live guidance during surgery.

Smart software recognises anatomy parts, as well as enabling experienced peers to join remotely.

Across the industry, there is potential to adopt the latest immersive and innovative technologies to improve patient care, without needing to visit a patient in person.

Everyone stands to benefit from virtual and increasingly-digital healthcare, but only if they can use it to the fullest capacity.

Digital healthcare needs to be accessible, and accessible to everyone.

Technology is key to reducing any service delivery friction and can be implemented in a way that improves every citizen’s experience.

For digital healthcare to be truly impactful, it must be fuelled by reliable data which is collected, managed, and stored in a safe and efficient manner.

Grasping the opportunity

It has been an extremely-challenging year for everyone, and the healthcare sector has done amazing work in keeping people safe.

The demand for this ‘digital first’ mentality is – crucially – being driven to a significant extent by people in older age groups, who have traditionally been less enthusiastic about the role of digital public services

As for the private sector, this past year has been a learning curve for public sector organisations, which have had to adapt to better serve citizens.

It’s clear that demand for digital services is set to grow rapidly in the years ahead. Yes, this is a challenge, but it is also a prime opportunity to create world-class public services which are more accessible and more responsive to the unique needs of each of us.

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