2015-16 saw the third year of the NHS Widening Digital Participation programme taking place across the UK online centres network.

For the past three years, this programme has been improving the digital skills and digital health literacy of groups most affected by health inequalities.

Funded by NHS England, Tinder Foundation has coordinated hundreds of local community organisations to support learners in the use of expert online content, improving their digital health literacy skills and helping them use online GP services.

Centres worked through a variety of delivery models, embedding digital health literacy within existing digital skills provision, and forming local partnerships with health professionals and other organisations to reach people who could benefit from the Widening Digital Participation programme.

“At my practice, we’ve been running a digital surgery alongside our normal healthcare for three years. In that time hundreds of patients have been referred on to get help to use computers and the internet – and find out more about their health. The digital surgery has been particularly useful for the people we see with long-term health conditions – things they’ll be living with and have to learn to manage for the rest of their lives, like diabetes, depression, chronic pain or arthritis.

I’ve only got ten minutes – perhaps twenty – with a patient, and that’s often not enough time to answer all the questions or go through all the options. When people come back to see me, they’ve got a better idea of what they’re facing and how they want to proceed – and that’s great for me. I can make the diagnosis and suggest some treatment options but actually it’s not up to me to make the judgement about what comes next.”

Dr. Ollie Hart, Sloan Surgery, Heeley, Sheffield

When Elizabeth, 82, was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2013, she immediately began to lose her independence, but thanks to the tutors at her local UK online centre, Age UK South Tyneside, and the online world, she now feels more in control of the aspects of her life which she thought were gone forever.

Before her diagnosis Elizabeth described herself as very organised, but when she found out she had vascular dementia – the most common form of the disease which is estimated to affect more than 135,000 people in the UK alone – things changed very quickly for her. She says: “Every aspect of my life was planned. I was very independent, cooked and cleaned for myself and I was very active – I drove, played bridge competitively and loved puzzles of all sorts.

“When I was diagnosed I was advised to stop driving so I immediately lost some independence. I often struggle to remember the simplest of things which has made things like doing puzzles a struggle. Even when playing bridge there have been a couple of times when I completely forgot how to play which is both frustrating and embarrassing, so I eventually gave it up.

When things started to get on top of Elizabeth she moved into a home. She says: “I moved just over a year ago. I know help is always at hand but this is not home to me, and I often worry that I have become moodier because I get frustrated when I can’t do things I used to do.”

In the summer of 2015, Elizabeth met the team from Age UK South Tyneside, who introduced her to all the possibilities that the internet has to offer – it opened up a whole new world for her.

“One of the first things I learned how to do on the laptop was use email and Skype,” says Elizabeth. “This has helped me to stay in touch with family and some of my friends. I was then shown how to use Google to find information and how to use the NHS Choices website. My tutor showed me how I could find out about my type of dementia and about groups that could help me.

“We also found out about activities I could do that would help slow down the progress of the dementia. I was helped to sign up for the Alzheimer’s Society’s ‘Singing for the Brain’ and I also found out about a dementia-friendly café. We looked at YouTube and other sites, so I could find music, tv programmes, radio shows and documentaries.

“In November I started shopping online and I was able to do my Christmas shopping on my laptop from the comfort of my room. I’ve even registered with my local doctor’s surgery, so I can book appointments without having to call first thing in the morning and I can get my medication without having to call during the hour the prescription line is open. It’s been great!”

When Elizabeth first started learning with Age UK she was really nervous, but now she finds learning fun. She says: “I don’t go to a centre – my teacher comes to me and I can keep in touch when I want to. When I first started I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to learn something new, especially with the dementia, but everyone has been really great. They take things slowly and don’t move on until I’m happy and I understand everything.

“My confidence has improved steadily and I’m not scared to take on anything new. My tutors are wonderfully patient and nothing is too much trouble for them. They make learning fun!
“When I’m online I feel empowered to take back control over aspects of my life I thought I had lost. I know how much help is available if I need it and as long as I’m careful I know how to avoid problems online.”