If we bridge the urban and rural tech divide, we can help ageing communities to thrive

March 2019

Joel Charles, Director of Government Relations and Impact, Future Care Capital

The current generation of innovators seem to be churning out new technological advances at an incredible pace. I think we all sometimes fail to take a step back from the giddy excitement that comes with big tech announcements and reflect upon how we might all benefit from them in equal measure.

We have submitted written evidence to an inquiry being led by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Rural Health and Social Care. Our submission explores the opportunities and challenges presented by a range of new and emergent technologies. Applying them to improve health and care outcomes matters a great deal, particularly to the most vulnerable groups in our society. Innovators in this space can be a force for good – helping the disabled, sick and elderly to be more independent and work towards improved wellbeing. The truth is that we still have some way to go before the latest advances in technology deliver universal benefit.

Rural communities have, in some important respects, benefitted the least from technological advancements. They face several critical barriers – including, poor transport and digital infrastructure, pockets of deprivation and an ageing population that requires complex support to manage the multiple conditions people are increasingly developing in later life in challenging geographies. Action with Communities in Rural England say that over-65s represent 20% of the population in rural areas of England and that number is growing fast.[1]

Technology harbours the potential to improve the delivery of health and care provision and enable people to be better connected, but older people in rural areas run the risk of being left behind.

Our APPG submission recommends a number of ways in which to tackle the tech divide between rural and urban centres. Here are three of our key recommendations:

A joint taskforce

Rural communities should not be excluded from the latest wave of health and care technology. This means that the Government will need to think carefully about bridging the tech divide. To do this, a taskforce could be charged with reviewing the needs of rural communities and consider what technology might realistically be deployed given current infrastructure and healthcare challenges.

APPG Recommendation 3: The Government should consider establishing a joint taskforce, involving Defra and NHSX, which aims to encourage the rapid development of new technological innovations that improve frontline healthcare in rural settings.

Better connected communities

Championing independence is one of the clearest routes to tackling social isolation and loneliness amongst older people in rural communities. Targeting the design and introduction of automated vehicles presents an opportunity to do so, helping elderly and disabled people to gain greater independence and stay better connected with their local community.

APPG Recommendation 5: The Government Office for Science should be tasked by Ministers to work closely with local government and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to look at how planning and economic development policy might anticipate the advantages of automated vehicles in helping elderly and disabled people, particularly in rural areas of the country, to remain independent in their community.

The power of data

Harnessing data to deliver better health and care outcomes is critical if we are going to respond to the needs of our ageing population. We explored this in our report, Facilitating Care Insight to Develop Caring Economies, calling upon the Government to invest in local efforts to deliver contemporary data-driven models of care.

The Government recently launched NHSX, a new joint organisation which will be responsible for NHS national technology, digital and data strategy for the Department of Health and Social Care. This coincided with the launch of the second iteration of the Code of Conduct for Data-driven Health and Care Technology. We are concerned that the code does not articulate how the social, commercial and economic benefits of data-driven innovation are to be fairly distributed throughout the country. Our own primary research and analysis points towards the scope for a ‘data dividend’ in urban communities, in respect of which rural and coastal areas are liable to lose out.

APPG Recommendation 8: In our forthcoming discussion paper we will recommend the co-production of a mechanism to distribute the benefits of data driven innovation fairly within and between integrated care systems involving frontline health and care organisations, NHSX, HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

As our population continues to age, the Government and other key sectors within our economy will need to adjust their outlook and plan accordingly to respond to our longevity by turning associated challenges into positive opportunities. Our belief is that all generations and communities have an equal right to access the benefits of technology to improve their health and wellbeing. It remains to be seen if the Government and industry can deliver a truly inclusive national tech agenda that benefits all parts of our country.

References

[1] Action with Communities in Rural England (February 2019), Factfile, available from: http://acre.org.uk/rural-issues/older-people