This site is intended for health professionals only

How healthcare leaders can avoid the digital divide

How healthcare leaders can avoid the digital divide
By Jonathan Hassell CEO at Hassell Inclusion
28 June 2023

Without doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the use of digital technologies across public services, particularly in the healthcare sector. From virtual GP appointments to ordering prescriptions, the rise of online access has had a transformative effect on the sector.

While there are many positives reports have also highlighted a growing ‘digital divide’ between those that can comfortably access digital healthcare and those that can’t.

This was particularly apparent in a recent report, The Digital Divide: Reducing inequalities for better health, from global policy institute, Public Policy Projects (PPP). It outlined many recommendations to enable those who are more likely to be digitally excluded – including people over 70 years old and people with disabilities or long-term health conditions – to access online services. These included schemes to improve digital skills and mandatory digital training for healthcare professionals.

One of the key recommendations is that ‘NHS England should update their digital technology assessment criteria (DTAC) to ensure that products and interventions are designed specifically tailored to the needs of those with additional accessibility requirements’, such as those with disabilities and older people.

The DTAC is designed to be used by healthcare organisations to assess suppliers at the point of procurement, to make sure digital technologies meet minimum baseline standards.

When it comes to accessibility, suppliers are scored on whether they are compliant with Level AA of the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. However, the PPP report believes that this is not enough to ensure that the health sector’s digital estate is accessible to all.

In my experience, too often digital accessibility is an afterthought that requires a product to be retro-fixed, when it would have been much more effective if it was embedded right from the beginning of the design process. Our recent report, An Immature Response? Why organisations are failing to build digitally accessible product and services, shows that there are often major gaps throughout the process of designing digital products. More than a third (35%) of organisations involved in the research said they would launch digital products with known accessibility issues, while just 14% check that digital products created for them by external suppliers meet accessibility requirements.

So, how can healthcare leaders make sure their digital environment is available to all?

1. Adopt a strategic approach

Being great at digital accessibility is about the whole user journey. This requires a strategic approach to ensure that accessibility is ‘baked in’ to your processes so it is not seen as a tactical add-on. Otherwise, you will always find yourselves having to retro-fix elements of your services that don’t meet accessibility requirements, which is inefficient.

2. Define responsibility and get senior buy in

It is also important to have a champion at a senior level. Having a digital accessibility programme manager who can lead a project team to own, run and report progress against your strategic plan is really important. You should also ensure your plan includes adequate training, and the creation and communication of policies and processes to embed digital accessibility into your organisation’s DNA.

3. Embed accessibility across your organisation and with all stakeholders

Great accessibility is only possible if the whole organisation is aware of it and actively ensures it is part of the design and creation of any digital product or communication. Key to this will be taking your wider supply chain – your external digital suppliers – on this journey with you, by going beyond DTAC and ensuring digital accessibility is a key part of your procurement process and contracts. 

4. Focus on user experience across all digital channels

Digital accessibility can mean different things for different people across multiple user touchpoints. When looking at the healthcare sector, the public will come into contact with a service through digital appointments, websites, emails and apps, and then through digital touchpoints in the healthcare setting itself, such as self-check-in. All of these things need to be accessible to ensure a smooth end-to-end user experience.

5. Design for accessibility throughout your development process

Our analysis shows that there is often an ad-hoc approach to accessibility in the development of digital products. Healthcare leaders need to ensure it is embedded throughout the development process of all products, from websites to apps to social media and PDFs, and that their accessibility is regularly monitored, checked and fixed after launch. In short, make things inclusive by design, across each product’s lifecycle.

Towards a more digitally inclusive future

The healthcare sector is becoming increasingly reliant on digital channels but there is a real danger of this exacerbating health inequalities. However, by improving accessibility in digital healthcare – starting at the design stage – digital transformation can be a force for good.

By Jonathan Hassell, CEO at Hassell Inclusion and co-author of the International Standard on Digital Accessibility Maturity – ISO 30071-1

Want news like this straight to your inbox?

Related articles