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Martha Lane Fox calls on NHS to offer free Wi-Fi and build digital skills

Martha Lane Fox wants the NHS to offer free Wi-Fi across the NHS estate, build digital skills and increase the number of patients using online services

Martha Lane Fox has set out four main recommendations to the National Information Board on increasing people’s uptake of online services in health and social care by 2020.

Earlier in 2015, health minister Jeremy Hunt asked Martha Lane Fox to develop a proposal for digital uptake in healthcare, which is being presented at the National Information Board meeting on 8 December 2015.

One of the main recommendations in the report is to implement free Wi-Fi across the NHS estate, which Lane Fox says will allow patients in hospital to self-monitor their conditions using apps and stay in touch with family and friends.

“This will be a powerful and effective step to improve people’s take up of digital health and technologies. It could open the doors to digital tools and technologies and it could transform health and social care services,” the report said.

“In addition, it would mean the NHS taking a wider leadership role in the national effort to eradicate digital exclusion.”

Lane Fox added that free Wi-Fi could reduce the administrative burden on healthcare workers.

“Critically, it would provide an access point for people to discover and use health digital tools, resources and information when their health is likely a central focus on their mind – supporting a greater take up in digital tools, including those focused on self-care and self-management,” she said in the report.

NHS England’s director of patients and information, Tim Kelsey, said earlier in 2015 that the NHS could conceivably install free-to-access Wi-Fi hotspots across its entire estate, which is one of his personal ambitions. 

The NHS workforce is also encouraged to take up digital technologies, with Lane Fox urging the NHS to develop and roll out a digital skills assessment, training, support and mentorship programme.

“Digital health literacy, confidence and maturity among the NHS workforce are critical to realising the great potential the network age brings,” the report said.

Lane Fox added that this would provide major benefits, such as enabling NHS workers to support patients wanting to engage with digital services and support their own professional development.

Not leaving anyone behind

Out of the four “initial priority actions”, Lane Fox said the most important one is to “reach the furthest first and do not leave anyone behind”. She wants digital inclusion programmes to be embedded in the NHS and that “no digital tools should be funded without an accompanying ‘reach furthest first’ strategy”.

She also urged NHS England to work with partners across different sectors to show how digital technologies can help drive transformation.

“As a starting point, I propose a cross-sector focused project working with older people with life-limiting or terminal illness facing the end of life to give them more control over their health and care destinies,” she said in the report.

12 million people in the UK are estimated to lack “at least one basic digital skill” and 33% of people with disabilities have never used the internet. Lane Fox said the figures are “shocking” and that the focus should be on including those people who are traditionally excluded from digital and on designing tools around people’s needs.

“In the network age, universality, equity and quality must be at the centre of how we build, adopt and scale technologies in health. No-one must be left behind,” said Lane Fox.

GPs need to encourage patients to use online services

Nearly all patients in England have access to their summary care record online and most GP practices have the ability to give patients access to online appointment bookings and repeat prescriptions. Earlier in 2015, Hunt promised that by 2016, every patient would be able to access their full medical records online.

However, while 54% of people in England use smartphones, only 2% currently interact digitally with the NHS.

Lane Fox called on primary care and GP practices to encourage patients to use online services. She said that by March 2017, every single GP practice should have at least 10% of its patients using online services. This should increase by 10% each year, meaning 90% of patients would use online services by 2025.

The work will include an assessment to get a “true picture of the barriers”, which is preventing primary care from promoting digital health.

“The promotion, marketing and support of digital health and technologies are critical to their increased take up and currently seem to present a barrier,” the report said.

“To date, limited understanding of the evidence around the effectiveness of digital health and technology and a lack of understanding about what exists are likely to have been key barriers to progress.

“In addition, digital maturity of the workforce and limited staff may impact on the ability or motivation to promote digital services. These barriers must be addressed to support primary care providers in the network age.”

Lane Fox said she will be sharing the recommendations with the social care minister and the Care Quality Commission to ask if they could be embedded in the inspection framework.

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