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Are we losing sight of what the democratisation of healthcare really looks like?

We have a core responsibility as healthcare communicators to consistently drive for better inclusion, engagement and compliance. What does the ‘democratisation of healthcare’ really look like?

Many sectors are riding the wave of digitisation, especially in the wake of the pandemic. And this is true of healthcare, which experienced a rapid transition to meet remote demand in a lockdown world. Digital GP appointments, video calls, home-testing, app uploads and metaverse training for HCPs all became more commonplace.

Indeed, there has been particular focus on the uptake of such technology as a great leap forward in lowering the barriers to healthcare access, with, it is said, more people having better access to proper consultation and increasingly personalised and convenient care.

There is no doubt that these tech innovations and investments have huge potential, but is there a risk that their use could actually have the unintended consequence of widening the health gap and become the opposite of a democratising force?

With many non-native English speakers still unable to access basic information, or understand communications outside of their first language, and swathes of the population having limited digital access, we risk losing sight of the basic requirements for universal healthcare as we rush to embrace digital transformation.

Inequitable access to basic healthcare, caused by complex socio-economic factors, leaves healthcare providers around the world with a responsibility to get the fundamental basics right first before looking for higher tech additions or solutions.

The barriers to universal healthcare access are myriad. Non-representative clinical trials, the unaddressed differences in men’s and women’s health, stuck in the past medical training and differing levels of health literacy, are just a few of the areas that need urgent action.

Take for example when the news was announced that mandatory women’s health training for doctors will be introduced in 2024; many will have been surprised that it wasn’t already a requirement, never mind that it won’t be in place for another two years. Medical training is still predominantly based around white males – with books and medical literature failing to offer a true representation of the population. This education must move on from the paternalistic model of see one, do one, teach one – we need to change behaviour and challenge preconceptions.

It falls to the pharma industry and healthcare communicators to play an important role in ensuring all people – regardless of ethnicity, age and technological access or literacy – can access and understand information about their health. As an industry, we need to reflect and be more responsive to patients’ real circumstances. We need to ask ourselves what are we doing to ensure healthcare communications can be accessed by all communities – no matter how tech savvy they are or which one of the  300 plus languages that they might be speaking in the UK alone?  Communication is the vehicle for better inclusion, engagement and compliance to achieve better patient outcomes.

Change is hard in every industry, and this is particularly true in the complex world of healthcare. Those of us working in healthcare communications have a duty to understand the deep diversities of the patient communities and doing so will allow us to do better by our patients. Bringing innovation to how we communicate doesn’t have to be solely through a tech lens: simple pictorial guides, translations or subtitling, font size and much more would require minimal effort from the industry but would have a monumental impact on individuals trying to navigate their health journey.

Technology will continue to do wonderful things in healthcare, but when it comes to healthcare communications, there is no universal, one size fits all, solution. And while the ‘democratisation of healthcare through technology’ feels so very attractive, we need to pause to acknowledge what it truly represents; empowerment of our fellow human beings.

By Isabelle Nicholson-Rose, Page & Page and Partners

12th August 2022

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Page & Page and Partners

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