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COVID-19: Digital inclusion of older populations

Digital technologies have played an important role in health and social care in recent years, but this has been limited to a few key areas.

People can make GP appointments and order repeat prescriptions through online services, as well as access NHS111 advice online.

In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the social/physical distancing measures have meant many more health services have moved online.

A growing number of older people are able to access services with digital technology, but this is not the case for everyone. Those who are not able to access health and care services may be at a disadvantage both during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the future.

This video gives a brief overview of the research.


The purpose of our review was to understand how much digital technologies can support older adults to access health and care services, looking at two key questions:

  • Do digital technologies improve access to health and social care for older people?
  • What are the key elements of successful digital technologies that help older people access health and social care services?

What we did

We looked at existing research that measured how well digital technologies helped older people get access to doctors, nurses and care workers in hospitals, clinics or home-care agencies.

We were interested in research that looked at the use of a broad range of technologies in the older population, including:

  • telemonitoring equipment
  • videophones
  • smartphones
  • personal computers
  • laptops
  • tablets
  • smart televisions.

We also looked for evidence on:

  • how digital technologies helped people make the first contact with health services, such as by making appointments;
  • whether technologies replaced face-to-face care, such as online therapy;
  • technologies that helped people access support with health and care professionals through patient monitoring, for example, monitoring older people with ongoing illnesses or care needs.

What we found

We found 7 relevant reviews from 129 research studies.

The reviews did not show if digital technologies helped older people make the first contact with services, or if they improved access to services.

A small amount of poor-quality evidence showed hospital services (including admissions and re-admissions) may be reduced by replacing face-to-face delivery of services and therapies with digital technologies.

Current evidence does not match up very well with the NHS Empower the Person roadmap.

COVID-19 impact

We do not yet know the impact of the fast rollout of digital technology to support health and social care services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Further research after the pandemic may offer additional insight and learnings.

It is possible that many of the potential barriers that prevent people fully using digital innovations may have been removed. The impact for the older population will need to be carefully thought out.

New research will need to fully explore and understand the NHS strategy’s aims and outcomes around digital technologies in health and social care. This new research should address:

  • how we can demonstrate improved access for older adults to appropriate services;
  • the lessons learnt from the pandemic for the older adult population;
  • how best to identify areas that would benefit the most from solid primary research.

Associated publication

  • Kunonga et al (2021) – Effects of digital technologies on older people’s access to health and social care: umbrella review (Journal of Medical Internet Research) DOI:



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