An inevitable and often dreaded part of digital inclusion projects in healthcare is monitoring and evaluation. The first question is almost always, ‘Who is this evaluation for?’ There are usually three primary intended beneficiaries, the service users, organisational management and user research or funders. This often means that there can be multiple levels and streams of project output and impact measurement. This can seem like a lot of monitoring for a digital inclusion worker, particularly as digital inclusion work is often part of a project with specific clinical outcomes. So why is it so important to measure engagement with and progress in digital skills?
Asking why the digitisation of healthcare is inevitable is a good place to start. Healthcare is increasingly digitised because data saves lives. Scotland’s commitment to being an ethical digital nation has its basis in three Scottish Government’s Care in the Digital Age: Delivery Plan 2022-2023. Core aims include citizens having access to and control over their own data and data-driven services designed with the citizen at the centre. Accessing and maintaining one’s own data is the first step to self-management in healthcare. This is set out in Scotland's first Health and Social Care Data Strategy.
According to the World Health Organization, mental health services do not reach about 55% and 85% of people in developed and developing countries, respectively. The Scottish Health Survey shows that children under 12 living in areas of highest multiple deprivation in Scotland have a 15% more chance of having general health and wellbeing issues than those in the lowest. The correlation between poverty and poor health is well-known, as is the direct connection between sustained internet access and affordability. The BMC reports that those who report their health to be poor used the Internet less for health purposes than other respondents. The Mental Health Foundation states that many people with physical health problems already use self-management tools and resources to help with their symptoms. They have also been shown to improve the lives of people with mental health conditions. In 2023, the self-management of physical and mental health conditions requires Internet access.
We know that digital connections effectively combatted social isolation and allowed people to access healthcare services during the pandemic. Last year 45% and 31% of people in the UK said that they use the internet to help manage their general health and mental health, respectively. Despite the important role that Internet access plays in public health, relatively few studies have systematically examined the distributional and aggregate effects of the Internet on health outcomes in Scotland. This is why organisations working in the digital inclusion in health space need to collect and collate data about the short, medium and long-term effects of digital inclusion on physical and mental health. Because if data saves lives, we are always going to need more.