Digital Health Literacy is Key to the Future of Healthcare

15th September 2021 by Soufiane Taleb

In a newly published government report, improving health literacy is highlighted as a key factor in creating a more sustainable future for the UK healthcare system. In an increasingly digital world, new innovations and technologies can play an important role in making healthcare more accessible. This can help people more easily look after themselves and those around them.

Our healthcare system is facing a challenge. Poor diet and sedentary lifestyles, an ageing population, and an increasing incidence of chronic conditions are placing stress on the NHS and resulting in increasing healthcare costs. This is made worse by poor levels of health literacy in the UK, which reduces the ability of some people to access the appropriate healthcare services in a timely fashion, often leading to worse health outcomes in already vulnerable groups.

What is health literacy? Health literacy is defined by the World Health Organisation as ‘the personal characteristics and social resources needed for individuals and communities to access, understand, appraise, and use information and services to make decisions about health.’ What this means in practice is that health literate individuals are empowered to manage their own healthcare more effectively than those who are less health literate.

Health literacy is a recognised social factor contributing to health. Poor health literacy is linked to poor education, poverty, low socioeconomic status and unemployment, but it may also be found in affluent communities. Health illiteracy can affect everyone. For example, a person newly diagnosed with a long-term condition is likely to have little understanding of their condition at first. If they have low health literacy, then they may have difficulty locating the right information appropriate for them, as well as difficulty identifying trustworthy sources. This may then affect how effectively they are able to manage their condition on a day-to-day basis.

Health literacy is highlighted as a key factor in a recent report by the Government Office for Science and the Council for Science and Technology, on harnessing technology for the long-term sustainability of the UK’s healthcare system. This report outlines the opportunity to apply digital technologies to transform our healthcare system, create a personalised service, and address poor health literacy.

Digital engagements, such as via social media, can help to improve access to health information. A relevant example would be the campaigns to address vaccine hesitancy which we are currently seeing in association with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Technologies can also help provide equal access to health information, such as patient-centric monitoring tools like Roche’s Remote Patient Monitoring solution for diabetes. Here, data has been integrated from diabetes management apps like mySugr and blood glucose meters to ensure a continued relationship between doctors and diabetes patients during the pandemic.

More and more digital tools are available for measuring individuals’ health statuses and health risks thanks to smartphones, digitally connected ‘smart’ sensors, miniaturisation, and patient-friendly designs. These tools are very common, ranging from health apps for measuring blood pressure and recording your diet, to apps supporting healthy behaviours such as the Couch to 5K app. Technology is playing a role in engaging individuals and keeping them informed about their health status and risks.

While digital tools for monitoring your own health are readily available, further work is required to harness them to allow health services to reach hard-to-reach or vulnerable populations. One exciting technology being trialled is the Technology Integrated Health Management (TIHM) study for dementia. One in four hospital beds are occupied by people with dementia and the UK is expected to have over 1.1 million dementia patients by 2025. The cost of supporting these patients is expected to rise from £26 billion now to £55 billion by 2040. TIHM is an innovative Internet of Things study using home devices to allow clinicians to remotely monitor the health, including vital signs and behavioural changes, of dementia patients in real-time. TIHM aims to proactively identify health problems early so dementia patients can receive prompt support, reducing pressure on carers and supporting them to stay in their homes for longer. Early findings suggest it is achieving these goals, with participants with technology placed in their homes experiencing significantly reduced neuropsychiatric symptoms, with reduced pressure on family carers. TIHM is the first such programme in the UK or internationally using an IoT approach in the community for dementia patients, and positively demonstrates the value of patient-centred digital approaches for improving health literacy.

“TIHM has reduced our visits to A&E and put our minds at rest.”

~ User feedback.

Improving access to patient-centred digital health technologies equalises healthcare access, even in hard-to-engage populations, and empowers patients and carers to be health literate. This comes with the added benefit of freeing up clinicians’ time to focus on the most complex cases.

In the future, digital technologies will continue to make health checks and consultations more accessible and bring them into the community, so interventions can be used preventatively. The report recommends the creation of technology ‘Demonstrators’ to test the application of new digital technologies to transform the healthcare system, working with established and emerging technology partners and other stakeholders to do so. 

Above: a representation of how a technology Demonstrator region may unify individuals, clinicians, technology partners and healthcare system planners to transform patient care.

There is an immense opportunity to get involved with pioneering digital technologies in healthcare in the UK. By applying digital technologies to healthcare, we can create a system personalised to individual patients, focusing on early-stage prevention and maintenance of good health rather than acute interventions. This is how we create a sustainable future for the NHS, by empowering people to take control of their health and access to healthcare services.

medDigital has partnered with Self Care Forum to help support organisations to help people access meaningful health information. To find out more and see our resources, including videos, podcasts, and webinars, check out our healthcare literacy hub!