Technology is transforming our relationship with healthcare. For the first time, apps, wearables and online video consultations are giving people with long-term conditions immediate, effective support to self-manage their health and wellbeing, without the need to visit a healthcare professional in person. Now, that’s become more important than ever. 

But there’s a risk: As this tech crosses the divide from clinical validation to deployment at scale – and at pace – some of those who would benefit most may be left behind.

Research by the Social Market Foundation, a think tank, found that introducing new technologies for self-management may in fact disadvantage some of the most vulnerable groups in society further still. That’s because there’s an assumption of circumstances which may not reflect reality; around 10% of people in the UK lack internet access, rising to as many as 25% of those with a disability. 21% of adults, typically in the poorest communities, lack basic digital skills, while 16% are unable to fill out an online form.

So how can we ensure these groups can get what they need from a digital health intervention? 

“Based on my experience at both local and national levels, perhaps the most important lesson of all is that becoming a digitally enabled healthcare provider isn’t about replacing analogue or paper processes with digital ones,” says Niti Pall, Medical Director, KPMG Global Health Practice.

“For me, the technologies that have released the greatest immediate benefits have been carefully designed to make people’s jobs or the patient’s interaction easier, with considerable investment in both the design of the tool and the redesign of ways of working.” 

We asked four other leading industry experts what that design process should look like.

Meera Vijayaraghavan, Senior Innovation Associate, National Innovation Centre for Ageing: Involve users in development. 

“The best way to keep people connected with new technology is to involve them from the beginning. Especially if you are developing a solution for people with specific needs, such as the ageing population, and not just in a tokenistic way. The technology might feel intuitive to those who design it, but this is often not the case for many users.” 

John Grumitt, Vice President, Diabetes UK: Make the content accessible. 

“Strive to make all content free from judgement or blame. Avoid a formal or clinical tone of voice and keep sentences and paragraphs short and clear. Provide links in context, at the point in the content where they are most relevant or useful. And take care to ensure that new content is only presented when the reader has demonstrated a clear understanding of previous content.”.

Joanna Causon, CEO, Institute for Customer Service: Understand each individual’s own needs. 

“Technology has to be designed by a customer person rather than a tech person, and you have to see it through the customers’ eyes. What does that actually feel like? How do you know that this will make people’s lives easier?”

Matthew Cripps, Director of Sustainable Healthcare, NHS England & NHS Improvement: Provide ongoing, human support. 

One thing that technology can never replace, although it can provide effective value-adding platforms for, is conversations between a patient and clinician. These are where ‘customer-centricity’ best occurs – both to help the person determine what is best for them, and to help the ‘system understand what actions and models would be ‘customer-centric’. Technology supports, and in many cases, can enhance this, but only by enabling better human-to-human interaction.”

Changing Health is a provider of personalised, digital behaviour change programmes for Type 2 diabetes management, Type 2 diabetes prevention and weight management. Learn more about digital inclusion in healthcare in Changing Health’s white paper “Will the algorithm see you now? Putting user centricity at the heart of healthcare technology” here.