The NHS needs to talk about digital inclusion

Saira ArifSaira Arif is the Digital Citizen and Innovation Lead at the NHS North West London Collaboration of Clinical Commissioning Groups. She’s also a Health and Wellbeing Ambassador and Mental Health First Aider. Here, she lays out her passion for “digital inclusion”, and explains why it’s so important (and what we can do to improve it).

I came into the NHS from the legal profession, specialising in family law, with a particular interest in helping those suffering from domestic abuse. Some of the most vulnerable, socially excluded people were often closed off to the world with no quick means of getting help or learning about the impact the abuse was having on their health.

Right now, there are around 12M people in the UK who do not have basic digital skills. Being digitally excluded has a very close link to being socially excluded, which can result in poor health and vulnerability.

Local “Digital Ambassadors” help their communities learn digital skills for health

That’s why I am so excited to be leading on the Digital Citizen education programme in North West London –  it aims to help the local community learn about the digital tools available to them, so that they can more easily access information to improve their health. Whether training “Digital Ambassadors” on local digital tools, or encouraging GPs to prescribe “digital health hubs” as a self-care solution, it has always been important to me to embed the concept of innovation into the process.

Taking part in DigitalHealth.London’s NHS Digital Pioneer Fellowship has really provided me with the headspace to think outside the box. Initially, I felt like a small starfish in an ocean of awesome dolphins, as my project was not tech-heavy like some of the others and instead revolved around empowering patients to learn digital skills. However, I found that everyone was on a different journey and it was up to us all to work together and be open-minded. This is where I found the “Action Learning Set” sessions invaluable. They allowed me to speak freely about problems I was having, whilst seeing my project through the eyes of my peers.

I soon realised that digital education is not just a means to increase numbers and usage of the health service, it’s a social movement. I was proud to have this recognised when the Digital Citizen programme won the regional NHS Parliamentary Award for London under the category of “Future of NHS.”

Currently the Digital Citizen programme has four components to help engage, empower, and educate local communities on issues surrounding their health and care:

  1. Digital Ambassadors: we are training local volunteers to train others within their communities
  2. Digital Workforce: we are ensuring our workforce is also digitally ready
  3. Digital Healthy Schools:we are helping students access approved, safe, and secure apps and other digital tools through pastoral lessons
  4. Digital Health Community Hubs: we are holding drop-in sessions for local residents to help them learn new digital skills
Digital Ambassadors at their induction and training day

The true power of the Digital Citizen programme lies with the people involved. If we help others with the basics, we can ensure that no-one is left behind. The NHS has started its digital journey- it’s important that we don’t allow a lack of skills in its patients to negatively affect their health.

Follow Saira and her team on twitter for the lates from the Digital Inclusion programme:

  • @iamSaira
  • @DigiCitizenNWL