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Closing the digital health divide

There is a risk in healthcare digitising that some vulnerable patients and populations will be unable to benefit from it exactly when they most need it, due to the digital divide.

By Good Things Foundation Australia · 21/02/2021

A doctor conducts an appontment over videocall on her laptop

Whether looking up health information online, having telehealth consultations with a doctor, accessing electronic prescriptions and referrals, or using health and wellbeing mobile phone apps, digital health is all around us these days.

This has accelerated since COVID-19, where healthcare, like many other services, rapidly moved online due to lockdowns and risks for vulnerable patients.

However, there is a risk in healthcare digitising that some of these vulnerable patients and populations will be unable to benefit from it at the exact time when they most need it due to the digital divide. There may also be longer term disadvantage created by the inability of some to access reliable health information online or use technology to better manage their health conditions and improve their general wellbeing.

That’s why we are no longer just talking about the ‘digital divide’ but now also the ‘digital health divide’.

The Impact of a Digital Health Divide

Let’s face it, some people in Australia have got it tough. The populations affected by the digital divide are the same populations experiencing higher rates of chronic disease, and worse healthcare outcomes. People from the lowest socioeconomic groups – people on low incomes, that are unemployed, that have low levels of education – are more likely to have higher rates of illness and chronic disease such as diabetes, are more likely to suffer heart stroke and vascular disease, have chronic kidney disease, have a disability and live shorter lives compared to people from higher socioeconomic areas.

Importantly to note, the digital health divide is unlikely to be confined only to the people in the lowest socioeconomic areas. According to the 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index, less than half of all Australians believe that computers and technology give them more control over their lives and less than 40% feel they can keep up with the changing technological landscape.

The challenge, therefore, with the increasing adoption of digital technology in healthcare, is to avoid widening the digital health divide into a chasm, and further exacerbate health inequity for our vulnerable populations. While there is an acknowledgement that digital health technology has great potential to benefit the lives of Australians, specific effort is needed to ensure that it benefits all Australians. We must make sure that already vulnerable populations are not further disadvantaged through poor digital access and low digital confidence and skills.

Addressing the Digital Health Divide

In partnership with Australian National University, Good Things Foundation Australia last year commenced a series of roundtable discussions focussed on better understanding the digital health divide. We brought together the community sector, healthcare providers, government and academia to explore the issue and develop a series of recommendations. Through the roundtables, we have aimed to generate a community of practice and support a coordinated approach amongst those who live, practice, research and work on closing the digital health divide in this country.

Feedback received at these events has supported our own experience gained from running digital inclusion and digital health literacy programs with our network of organisations in communities across Australia. We heard that more needs to be done to support people to gain the knowledge and skills required to reduce the digital health divide in Australia. This support needs to be appropriately funded, be provided by the community sector to meet the specific needs of our diverse communities, and have close ties into general practice and other primary healthcare settings. You can read the Expanding Digital Health Roundtable recommendations here.

The future of healthcare is now – but we need to ensure that the people who need it most don’t get left behind.