Digital skills are vital to improving health & science

14 July 2015 | Science communication

Martha Lane FoxMartha Lane Fox is founder & Chair of Go ON UK and co-founder of She was UK Digital Champion and established the government’s Digital Public Services Unit. Martha was appointed to the House of Lords in 2013 as Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho.

It’s no secret that digital technology is having an impact on health and science in amazing and innovative ways. In the Richard Dimbleby Lecture broadcast on BBC Television in March this year, I mentioned the incredible results that doctors have achieved by using technology. For example, how doctors in London remotely operated on and saved the life of a tiny baby in Ecuador using sophisticated, networked robotic arms. Or how millions of people who love playing digital games took part in a project to analyse genetic data to help researchers beat cancer sooner. Yet we in the UK are not yet really grasping this new and incredible opportunity.

Technology and the science and health sectors are intrinsically linked and high-tech treatments and equipment play a major role. But we are still not fully exploiting technology in its simplest forms, and in many ways are further behind in health than in other areas of our lives, like banking or shopping. If you change your GP (doctor) in the UK, your records must still be sent by post to your new location; if you are taken into hospital they have no database to look up your medical history; we still rely on people to wear bracelets or carry cards that identify them as having long-term illnesses or allergies. This just isn’t good enough.

The UK government has committed to creating a paperless National Health Service, but what really needs to change is the culture behind it. We must encourage both patients and health professionals to expect, to want - to demand even - digital record systems and communication tools as a minimum standard.

A large-scale trial of e-consultation and record sharing showed a dramatic reduction in average response time - from 52 days with paper referrals to five days with electronic consultations. Imagine the difference that such a dramatic reduction in waiting time could make to a person’s health and wellbeing.

It’s not okay to not understand the internet

I have quoted Aaron Swartz before and I will again: “It’s not okay to not understand the internet anymore!” tiny-twitter As a health professional it is no longer okay to not understand how digital can help you deliver a better service, be more efficient and empower patients to take more control of their health.

Trial studies have shown that when people manage their health with the help of the internet there are substantial improvements, including a 45 per cent drop in mortality, and a 14 per cent drop in elective admissions. These numbers are too powerful to ignore.

The UK could save £4.4 billion

It will of course be challenging; there are plenty of care-givers without digital skills, and doctors’ surgeries without the appropriate kit or connectivity, but the benefits new technology can bring will far outweigh these obstacles. The cash saving would be huge. International accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimates that up to £4.4 billion per year could be reinvested in improving care by making better use of digital technologies. These savings would be particularly welcome at a time when countries around the world are trying to tackle the rise in lifestyle-related health problems such as the global obesity epidemic. For example, analysis of global research by World Cancer Research Fund International has found strong evidence that there are 10 cancers linked to being overweight or obese. So we need more health professionals, scientists and policymakers to be engaging via digital media tiny-twitter (including on basic social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook) to ensure that the latest scientific findings, policy research and public health recommendations are quickly and easily available for anyone to access online.

The Basic Digital Skills challenge

NHS England has committed to making patient-facing digital services a requirement by 2020. This is a great step forward, but we need to start preparing everyone for that now. There are still 10.5 million adults in the UK that lack the Basic Digital Skills needed to carry out simple tasks such as searching for information or submitting forms online. And all these people have health needs.

The Tinder Foundation and NHS England ‘Widening Digital Participation’ programme - who work to improve the digital skills of groups most likely to experience health inequalities - showed people how to manage their health using technology, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Almost four in five (78 per cent) learners have since gone on to exercise more or eat more healthily thanks to using apps or other digital tools; 45 per cent said that they had given up or cut down on smoking and alcohol consumption; and over half of learners have since explored ways of managing their mental health online. If we could scale up these results and awareness right across the UK, the benefits to people’s health and wellbeing, and the savings in public money, would be enormous.

Time for action

We were world leaders when we established the National Health Service and now we have the opportunity to renew that reputation by fully embedding digital in the health service. Let’s not have a poverty of ambition - we can and should be inventing the definitive public service for our networked age. That’s why I’m calling for Dot Everyone. You can sign the petition here.

UPDATE: On 31 July 2015, Martha Lane Fox announced that the UK government has given her the go-ahead to establish a new public body, Dot Everyone.

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Martha Lane Fox | 14 July 2015