Doctors’ surgeries, clinics and hospitals alike could become free Wi-Fi hubs for the digitally excluded if ambitions set out by NHS England's national director for patients and information, Tim Kelsey, come to fruition.
Speaking at an NHS England event on widening digital participation, Kelsey said the NHS could conceivably install free-to-access Wi-Fi hotspots across its entire estate.
Although Kelsey stressed that this was merely a personal ambition, and made it clear that he was not committing to a policy announcement, he told the event audience that he hoped free Wi-Fi access for people who might otherwise be excluded was something the NHS might push for during the next Parliament.
Kelsey said he recognised that for many digitally excluded people, cost of access to the internet was the main barrier to getting online.
Up to now Wi-Fi provision at NHS properties has been done on an ad hoc basis, with some trusts embracing the concept and forging their own path. There has, however, been no government-led programme.
The NHS has been working extensively with digital inclusion organisation the Tinder Foundation on its Widening Digital Participation scheme, which was set up to improve digital skills and digital health literacy skills among groups – such as the elderly or young parents – likely to “experience health inequalities”.
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The Tinder Foundation believes there is a significant amount of overlap between the digitally excluded and those more likely to suffer from health inequality, and has already found a clear correlation between the socioeconomic status of a ward and the average life expectancy of its patients.
It cited the example of a childhood polio survivor, now approaching old age, who was helped to find out more online about the symptoms of post-polio syndrome, which affects patients some 30 to 50 years after their initial illness, and take better control of her healthcare and engagements with primary NHS services.
The programme aims to help such groups deal with the shift towards digital by default, to enable people to access online health information and resources around finding employment or benefits.
A recent House of Lords Digital Skills Committee report said six million UK citizens had never used the internet, and claimed bringing them online was worth up to £63bn to the country’s GDP.
“In some parts of the UK, as many as 20% of the population have never used the internet. Only when the government treats the internet as a utility, as important and vital for people as water or electricity, will these issues be addressed,” said committee chair Sally Morgan.