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Digital champions for health: a blueprint for success

Executive summary

Current landscape

11.9 million people (22%) do not have the Essential Digital Skills needed for day-to-day life in the UK. By 2030, it is forecast that 4.5 million (8%) UK adults will remain Digitally Disengaged unless there is a step change in the provision of digital skills and confidence.(Lloyds digital index 2019).

Significantly, the heaviest users of health and social care (including older people and those with long- term conditions and disabilities) are the least likely to be online.

Being digitally confident and capable – having good digital skills – can support people to manage their health and wellbeing and support others they care for or are connected to do the same. Only 23% of people who are online currently use digital for physical and mental health purposes, rising to 29% for those with disabilities. (Lloyds digital index 2019). Digital Champions offer a scalable and sustainable way to tackle these challenges.

What a Digital Champion does

Digital Champions provide flexible, ongoing digital skills support that is targeted to the needs of their learner. They may be staff or volunteers and they may also be friends and family members but crucially they already interact with the people who need better digital skills.

The digital skills support a Digital Champion provides may be signposting, hands-on help or tuition with tasks such as using Google or sending an email, or just advice and guidance. Because the person being helped is already engaged with the Champion in some other way, the digital skills support is relevant, contextualized and far more impactful. Digital Champion models can deliver learning and skills at scale and cost effectively. Digital Champions for Health could support the empowerment of the digital health citizen.

I found a local support group for a Diabetic learner, plus we downloaded some recipes and put him in touch with the Diabetic Society via email.

Exploring the value of a standardised, national Digital Champions for Health model

Over the summer of 2019, Digital Unite, who specialise in Digital Champion models, were commissioned by NHS Digital to run a discovery project. Its purpose was to investigate whether there was added value in establishing a standardised, national Digital Champions for Health approach and consider what its key characteristics might be. The discovery comprised a mixed methodology, of:

  • a half day workshop in London with a range of organisations with an interest in or experience of delivering Digital Champion initiatives in health.
  • a survey amongst our existing network of Digital Champions covering settings and types of intervention, barriers to learning, common health topics addressed, impact and challenges.
  • telephone interviews with those delivering digital inclusion in health.
  • an analysis of Digital Unite’s own extensive Digital Champion data and insight accrued from over 6,000 Digital Champions.
  • secondary research to understand other existing Digital Champion or skills learning projects in health.

Key findings from the Discovery project

1. No standardised approach to current Digital Champion projects in the NHS

Digital Champion models can deliver learning and skills at scale and cost effectively – and they can be tailored to suit the specific requirements of the learners, and the organisation – wherever they are and whoever they are.

NHS Digital recognises the potential in the model and there are already several Digital Champion projects underway across the health sector. However, these initiatives are being carried out on an ad-hoc basis with no consistent learning or structured sharing of information and good practice.

The management of Digital Champion projects within the NHS has been costly and resource-heavy because each one is ‘starting from scratch’ and so scale and sustainability are compromised. Training is often given in a one-shot approach with no single repository of learning for Champions to refer to or add in.

For example in Nailsea, Digital Champion training for their 65 High Street project has been peer to peer and ad hoc between volunteers with support often given via a Whatsapp group.

I had not thought about specific training until we spoke today but it makes sense.

None of the Digital Health projects examined in this discovery project could provide an understanding of the skills level of the Digital Champions themselves, an important variable in a successful Digital Champion model.

There was also no evidence found of any specific online training for Digital Champions for Health in their role as Digital Champions for Health. When 50% of Digital Champions say their learners don’t want to learn about digital health because they don’t want to share personal information, contextual and relevant training for Digital Champions in health settings is clearly important.

2. There is clear appetite from existing Digital Champions in the NHS for a national network to provide consistent learning resources and peer support

In North West London (NWL), the project lead doesn’t feel that their Digital Ambassadors are sufficiently trained to hold sessions independently and so they are always accompanied by members of the project staff. Digital Champions are managed through email and Excel spreadsheets, which has proved hugely time-consuming.

What I want is for everything to be in one place!

Through a Digital Health Champions Network, local organisations would have access to a range of quality guides and resources that will help them give their learners the skills and confidence they need to then manage their health online. The NWL project, for example, identified that 7,000 adults in their borough didn’t have an email address and they set about solving that problem as part of their wider project. There could be consistent guidance on how to address that and the opportunities for extending the digital skills journey of those adults.

Wider research also confirms that employees and volunteers want to see strong, informed digital skills leadership in the organisations they work for and represent. In the charity sector (from which trends can be extrapolated), 64% want leaders with good digital skills strategies (including skills) and yet 58% believe their leaders’ digital skills are low. (Charity digital skills report 2019). Leaders and managers need to be visible parts of Digital Champion programmes and a ‘one-stop shop’ can provide accessible tools and toolkits around recruitment, management and reporting.

3. Health is a common topic of learner support for all Digital Champions, not just those working in the NHS

At Digital Unite, 74% of existing Digital Champions (who don’t specifically work in health settings) had been asked to help people to manage their health online and have seen positive impacts from these interventions.

Even something as simple as switching on a step counter on their phone can make people interested! Actually, walking people through the NHS website rather than using Google leads to better results. Encouraging people to follow local NHS Trusts and relevant advisory charities has seen some of my users become more informed.

Well over half (58%) were asked by learners for help with using search engines to find information to help manage specific health conditions. 1 in 2 (50%) Champions gave help with finding details of local GP and hospital services online and researching information to support healthy living.

4. Lack of confidence and skills is a major barrier to people managing their health online

When asked about the barriers their learners faced for digital health, 83% of Champions cited lack of confidence and skills, and over half (55%) said learners didn’t know they could access health information online. There is clearly work to be done to raise awareness of the fantastic online tools the NHS is creating.

5. Digital Champions, in any sector, are primarily motivated by helping others

Digital Unite’s analysis of their existing Digital Champion community shows that getting satisfaction from helping others’ was rated as ‘very important’ by the great majority (almost 80%). Digital Champions also have an appetite to learn, with almost 80% rating ‘improving my ability to support others’ and ‘understanding more about how digital skills improve lives’ as important motivations.

In health the primary motivations are the same. In the Southwark CCG Digital Champion project, Digital Champions were motivated by:

  • taking an active role in introducing patients to a service that will have a positive impact on their life and health
  • having the opportunity to make a positive contribution to local health services
  • building confidence in their ability to communicate with new people in various surroundings and with diverse groups

Recommendation - a Digital Champions for Health platform

A central open source learning and support platform would satisfy the following key criteria, as identified during this discovery project, namely:

  • deliver and maintain a body of quality Digital Health Champions training content online
  • host resources for end learners that Champions can use to support ongoing, self-serve learning
  • personalise the learning journey for each Digital Champion, serving up content that was right for their digital skill level and specific role
  • provide project management and measurement tools: DC information and their activity in terms of training and helping learners could be held securely in one place
  • host national and local health resources to support DCs for the entirety of their journey
  • provide an online forum for projects and DCs to learn from and support each other
  • be evolutionary, flexible, adaptable – with user experience at its heart
  • reward and celebrate success within consistent and coherent frameworks
  • achieve value for money by being a shared resource and repository

Investing in the development of a Digital Health Champions platform would, as evidenced in this report, deliver greater impact at greater scale for more end citizens and various stakeholders - from clinicians and support workers to CCGs and the NHS overall. Current localised and dispersed Health Champion projects cannot offer the scale, effectiveness, efficiency, impact and sustainability that a strategically designed and shared Digital Health Champions resource and model can.

In straitened financial times and uncertain political times, collective responses to collective challenges present more compelling value-added commissioning and delivery models than ever.

Last edited: 5 February 2020 4:48 pm