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Reflections on Martha Lane Fox’s digital NHS

Author: James Norris, Mark Taubert and Lucy Watts
21 December 2015

James Norris, Mark Taubert and Lucy Watts give their thoughts on Martha Lane Fox’s proposals to increase take-up of internet enabled services in healthcare, which were published on 8 December 2015.

This is a timely set of recommendations and it is pertinent to see greater emphasis on connectivity and training the NHS workforce to improve digital literacy.

However, there a number of questions and issues arising from the recommendations, and we have picked out some of the key themes below.

One question is: how long will it take to role out free wi-fi across the NHS? And how will hospitals and healthcare settings be incentivised to get this established by 2020? And will a free connection to patients will be provided distinct from a dedicated separate connection for healthcare professionals?

Some hospices and hospitals currently providing wi-fi block access to social media sites, email services and other internet sites. If wi-fi is free and for the general public, the services that they use must be accessible.

The internet can be a great way for families to stay connected with their loved ones while in a hospital, hospice or other healthcare setting. But overuse can be equally damaging, so thinking ahead about the use of the internet and good advice about how using smartphones/laptops/tablet computers at night, for instance, can lead to insomnia, and how it may be disruptive to other patients or can distract from actual real life conversations, should be considered.

Moreover, free wi-fi could be extremely useful to family members, enabling them to participate in ward rounds and ask questions. This might be especially valuable for healthcare settings whose visiting times start after ward rounds end.

Consideration must also be given to patients who are in full time education; they can find it hard to complete coursework, exams and other work while in a healthcare environment. Conversations for better e-learning facilities may need to be initiated.

We also need to know whether there are plans for discussions with large internet suppliers about providing the internet to the NHS for free or whether they will be heavily subsidised. Added value for suppliers would be to grow their expertise in areas such as wearable tech, eHealth, public information, but there would be ethical aspects to consider – exposing patients to certain forms of advertising, for instance.

A further issue is whether the NHS workforce should be assessed on how digitally literate they are. Acquiring basic skills could initially be self-assessed through a ‘digital personal development form’. Learning could lead to various accreditations and digital knowledge among staff could lead to digital empowerment given to patients and carers.

We would question what is the perceived value to the NHS to have 10% of its registered patients using online services by March 2017? And has there been any research exploring the time and money it would save?

As we said above, we were pleased to see Baroness Lane Fox’s recommendations, but we feel that the issues we have raised are ones that must be addressed.

About the authors

James Norris is the founder of the Digital Legacy Association and a lecturer in the internet, digital and social media at University College London. He is the main contributor in the Digital Asset & Digital Legacy Framework developed for healthcare professionals and social care professionals who work within end of life care.

Mark Taubert is passionate about getting wi-fi into NHS healthcare settings, such as hospices and hospitals. He has helped raise awareness with patient groups and dignity groups about the disadvantages and risks of being in healthcare settings with no data access whatsoever, and that this can be disempowering for patients and carers.

Lucy Watts is a campaigner and public speaker. She an ambassador and Young Avenger for Together for Short Lives, trustee of the Pseudo Obstruction Research Trust, the first global youth ambassador for the International Children's Palliative Care Network, community champion for Scope and an ambassador for Dreams Come True.

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