two doctors looking at a chart

Reframing the Digital Divide in Healthcare to Include Digital Literacy

8/10/2022
— Christina Corso, EVP of Health, NA and Elizabeth Shearing Green, Associate Director, UK 

The Relationship Between Clinician and Patient is Changing with the Influence of Technology on Healthcare.

The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled the use of technology in healthcare, reshaping the role of clinicians and their relationships with patients. But as health tech continues to innovate, the digital divide threatens to leave behind not only those without access to tech, but also those who don’t understand it.

Technology offers a much wider reach for patients and providers to connect and receive potentially lifesaving information and care, but without digital literacy, those less tech savvy can’t take advantage of the enhanced access to critical support. Achieving an equitable transition in digital health will require fostering tech literacy across the population and considering the emotional and physical well-being of both patients and clinicians alike.

The Acceleration of Telemedicine and Digital Health

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated healthcare’s digital transformation, showing the industry that it can, in fact, adapt quickly to change. Remote consultation boomed during the pandemic as an obvious answer to socially distanced medical care, quickly proving its efficiency and ultimately making telehealth a permanent fixture.

However, as technological advancements enhance the world of medicine at warp speed, not all healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients are tech savvy enough to take advantage of these new opportunities. WE recently partnered with WE client Elsevier, a global leader in information and analytics for HCPs, to engage with up to 3,000 clinicians from around the world on the future of healthcare in its “Clinician of the Future” report.

Two key challenges to come out of the responses were the well-being of clinicians in coping with change, and the digital divide leaving behind vulnerable patient groups as the industry transforms. So how does the wider healthcare industry tackle these literacy and access gaps?

Tech is Transforming the Doctor-Patient Partnership

Increased access to medical information and records is shifting the structure of healthcare as patients become more autonomous. The relationship between HCPs and patients is transforming into a partnership , reshaping the role of clinicians from authoritative to collaborative. Yet, the “Clinician of the Future” report suggests it’s also diminishing the sense of value clinicians believe they provide.

Advancing health tech is a double-edged sword: Although it empowers patients to take their health into their own hands, a generalized diagnosis off the internet can never replace expert consultation. Healthcare is personal, and every physical body and its related lifestyle is unique, requiring specialist diagnosis, treatment and advice.

HCPs must be steadfast in their understanding and use of health technologies and health data to manage their evolving relationships with patients. Tech and data literacy in the shifting medical landscape are pivotal to the security and well-being of clinicians and their patients alike. Physicians’ access to, and ability to navigate, clinical decision support tools and medical reference solutions is paramount to providing on-the-spot guidance in response to patients’ informed (or misinformed) questions.

Close the Digital Divide in Tech Access

Previously considered in terms of banking services and retail opportunities, the digital divide is now a major concern as healthcare moves increasingly online. Patients without smartphones or internet access will be left behind as telemedicine progresses. If basic health services move fully online without considering the technological access and literacy of patients, vulnerable groups will be unable to receive the care they require and existing health inequalities will be exacerbated.

Healthcare brands need to consider the impact any new technology that advances treatments or care pathways will have on all patients. They need to consider those with and without smartphones and internet access, as well as those who don’t know how to use advanced tech. Healthcare brands can provide supporting materials and how-to documents to those who need them, as well as offer in-person appointments for the most vulnerable. Collaboration and co-creation with a diverse set of patients are critical for the successful adoption of new technology.

A Lack of Digital Literacy

There is another pressing aspect to the digital divide not often thought about. HCPs in the “Clinician of the Future” study predict that “technology literacy” — the ability to understand and navigate tech — will soon outweigh clinical knowledge in value, as healthcare becomes digitized and patients consume more and more online medical content. 88% of clinicians globally see being “technologically-savvy” as an important skill in a clinician’s daily role.

The definition of digital divide therefore needs to be expanded to not just focus on access but to include the ability to understand, use and cope with digital advancements. The “Clinician of the Future” study reveals that 69% of clinicians are overwhelmed by the influx of tech in healthcare and the pressure to adapt to the changing landscape, with one in three reconsidering their current roles. Technological literacy is vital for clinicians to maintain their medical efficacy and patient trust. 

Providing Digital Literacy Support to HCPs

An overwhelming majority of HCPs (83%) believe that medical training needs to be overhauled to keep up with technological advancements. Healthcare institutions, brands and communities need to provide continuous training of medicine online, how it’s changing and how to use new tech. HCPs deserve to feel confident in their ability to use digital health technologies and explain medical information they receive from it, as their relationships with their patients transforms.

To support the adoption of new digital technologies, companies need to consider what additional support and training they need to provide for HCPs. Building HCP confidence and skills in both using and recommending digital tools is vital for health systems to move forward sustainably.

An Equitable Transition to Digital Healthcare

To achieve true health equity as the industry advances, all groups of varying levels of access and literacy need to be considered. Healthcare workers will need to consider a patient’s technology comfort level when it comes to consultation and treatment. There will be times when face-to-face appointments, hard-copy literature and physical touch are needed to provide equitable and optimal care. Clinicians need to continue to provide what technology cannot — personalized care and empathetic counsel.

Focused training for clinicians and careful consideration of a patient’s access to, and understanding of, tech is vital. Industry leaders need to consider the needs of patients and HCPs, from tech access to tech literacy, through consistent dialogue to provide the right support as the industry transforms.

This collaborative dialogue is fundamental to building trust between all stakeholders and delivering sustainable and fair healthcare systems in the months and years to come.