Community digital resource hubs in the Outer Hebrides

Community digital resource hubs in the Outer Hebrides

Health and social care services have been turning to technology to provide access to many of their services, and nowhere more so than in geographically remote locations such as the Outer Hebrides, where I live and work. Such technological approaches began before the Covid-19 pandemic but have developed apace over the last two years and are now established as a key way in which people can access their healthcare or social support needs.

"There is the risk that such technology creates health inequalities and leaves certain sections of our communities excluded." - Martin Malcolm, Fellow

In the Outer Hebrides, this has seen the national NHS Scotland ‘Near Me’ videoconferencing service become a standard option for people to access clinician appointments within local GP practices, hospital clinics and specialist mainland centres in Glasgow or Inverness. For many people this hasn’t been an issue, since they already have access to digital equipment and have the skills to make effective use of this new service. However, for a significant number in our communities, this has been be challenging. Whether from lack of equipment, poor digital coverage in remote villages, deficits in digital skills or simply feeling uncomfortable using such non-face to face approaches, there is the risk that such technology creates health inequalities and leaves certain sections of our communities excluded.

The NHS Western Isles played an integral role in the INTERREG VA project mPower, which provided an opportunity to tackle some of these obstacles. The project sought to support persons with long term health conditions to connect to technology and to community activities aimed at improving their health and wellbeing. As project lead, I was able to take some of the experiences from my Churchill Fellowship visit to Canada, which explored community activation with technology, and developed a proposal for the creation of community digital resource hubs across the whole Hebridean archipelago.

Towards the end of 2021, we tendered for five community resource hubs to be spread across the more remote areas of the islands. This project included ensuring communities had a space for digital resources and support in accessing both formal health and wider community wellbeing services.

A few key considerations from this exercise have been to:

  • Create such hubs in recognised community spaces to support access to health and social care digital services, especially for vulnerable persons with digital access difficulties.
  • Ensure these community spaces are within accessible locations, both in terms of transport and physical access.
  • Ensure sustainability of the community hubs by housing them in appropriate community organisations that are able to maintain them long term.
  • Link digital health services to wider digital social support opportunities, such as KOMP, Facebook portal, Alexa and iPad devices.
  • Build community digital hubs linked into wider social and community assets and activities, to offer opportunities for improving their wider physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Assist with set-up and link into digital skills support via the creation of a digital navigator role, until community hubs become established and confident to maintain themselves.

In December 2021, we awarded funds to our first community groups to provide digital hubs in island communities stretching from the Isle of Barra in the south to Ness on the Isle of Lewis, at the northerly tip of the Hebrides. Thereafter, following some further engagement, we awarded three more communities with funds for setting up hubs on the other main islands within the Outer Hebrides, giving coverage across most of the islands.

The hubs have been set up by a range of community groups, giving wider access to a broad range of community assets across the islands, which include a local cooperative store, local history group, community land trust, employability agency and a health and social care voluntary organisation.

Digital health opportunities have seen a number of people begin to access their medical appointments from these hubs, with the aid of volunteers if needed. One young child from South Uist is now able to access his diabetes appointments using the hub video conference facilities, saving him a two-day journey to the hospital in Stornoway involving a ferry. Prior to using the hub, his mother had to accompany her son with her other children, involving time off work and school for them all.

A number of health support organisations have also started to use the hubs for video meeting points across the islands, including the local diabetes and Alzheimer support groups, which has meant that those living in remote locations no longer need to travel.

Access to social support via the hubs has been another of the key areas of community benefit from the co-location of the hubs alongside various other community groups and activities. Also, the digital devices provided via the hubs allow people to familiarise themselves with these before considering obtaining one for themselves. There is an opportunity to try out some more innovative technology such as KOMP, which is a device providing simple ‘one-button’ access to a range of digital tools (messaging, reminders, video calling, photo-sharing) all in one safe and secure device.

The mPower project that supported the set-up for the community digital hubs is ending in June this year, but its initial set-up with key active community groups has provided reassurance that these community digital resources will be maintained going forward. There are proposals underway, too, for maintaining the digital navigator support as part of social prescribing services on the islands. It is hoped that this will give access to skills and other support for the future development of these now successful community hubs.

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.

Related