Sam Dorney-Smith is a nursing fellow at Pathway

Image: Pathway ‘Expert by Experience’ Joe Ellis talks to a survey participant about digital health

As part of its work on widening digital participation, the team at NHS Digital wanted to better understand how people experiencing homelessness use (or don’t use) technology every day, and if digital health information and tools would be of value to them. The findings from the research would help to develop solutions to addressing the barriers and challenges identified.

In February last year, NHS Digital and partners commissioned our organisation, Pathway – a charity which lobbies to improve health care for homeless people – to do a small piece of research looking at the digital health inclusion needs of people experiencing homelessness.

We’ve published the full report, explaining what the research discovered and the plans that are being developed locally as a result of the research.

What the research found

Some of the results of the research surprised us – for example 50% of those surveyed went online every day. However, conversely, 33% surveyed had never been online, or described themselves to have poor or very poor skills. The key factor was age – in general the digital exclusion seen in the general population seems to happen at an earlier age in the homeless population.

Most people were broadly enthusiastic about digital health though, but with some important caveats. A key limiting issue was access – 66% respondents described having a lack of access to the internet. Internet security was also a concern for 43% of respondents.

Importantly though, 80% of patients who did not have on line GP access thought this was a good idea, and people were enthusiastic about other forms of on-line health services such as sexual health screening.

What’s next – follow-up work

The Pathway charity would like to follow up this work by supporting people experiencing homelessness to use GP online services. The benefits could be of more value to people using these services as they often have very complicated histories and medication lists, and those questioned in the research experienced difficulty with making phone calls to book appointments and with negotiating at a GP reception desk.

From Nicola Gill, Programme Manager for widening digital participation: “The team from Pathway produced a really in-depth and comprehensive research study and reached a wide audience of people in varying stages of homelessness. We were surprised at the some of the findings, particularly that 50% were online every day and the enthusiasm and appetite for digital health technology.

We have several projects in development to support those experiencing homelessness including a digital inclusion pathfinder project in Hastings and a project to use free GP Wi-Fi to provide access and skills. Watch this space for more details on these projects.”

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