“The future was always going to be hybrid” – House of Lords releases report on the digital way forward

The House of Lords has released a report following a COVID-19 Committee session, entitled ‘Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World’.

Published on 21 April, the report covers ideas for what it calls a ‘hybrid strategy’ to balance a best of both approach to online and offline living, as well as a range of related digital and tech topics – stretching from digital inequalities, to potential future uses of technology and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the use of digital technology in health, education, work and social interaction.

What the inquiry means by ‘hybrid’ is “an increasingly blurred mix of online and offline aspects of life”,  a future which it says “as a result of the pandemic…is here now”.

A hybrid world, it adds, “is one that embraces the flexibility that remote working and virtual interaction can offer, with the recognition that we want and need public and private spaces in our communities”.

The report begins with a summary that considers the present situation in regards to access to technologies during the pandemic and what this could mean for the future.

“When this Committee was established in May 2020, very few people imagined that, a year later, our lives would still be severely restricted by the pandemic. People’s work, education, relationships, social and leisure activities and opportunities to travel have all been curtailed,” it says.

“The fact that we have been able to continue with these things to the extent that we have has in large part been thanks to the internet…this dependence on the internet as a result of the pandemic has led to a massive acceleration in many pre-existing digital trends: from online shopping to online GP appointments, automation of jobs to remote working.”

But the report also moves to highlight that the “last year of living online has highlighted starkly the huge inequalities that exist in this country”, citing children who missed out on schooling due to lack of laptops and internet connection, businesses without the capability to trade online due to lack of skills or broadband issues, and the socially isolated who were not able to join online communities because they had never used the internet.

Calling for more government intervention in what it calls a “societal change that affects us all”, the report admits that the “future was always going to be hybrid’ but that its inquiry “set out to look at the impact that the pandemic-driven digital acceleration” could have in the long-term on lives and wellbeing.

It found both benefits and limitations through its research, as well as that “the most disadvantaged and marginalised people in society were being further marginalised and disadvantaged” because they did not have the money to pay for an internet connection or computer, an appropriate space at home, or did not have the skills and confidence to “fully participate in the online world”.

Without urgent government action, the literature cautions that services could be digitised ‘badly’ for cost-saving reasons, that people could feel like they were being monitored and struggle to draw a line between work and home, that thousands or millions of jobs could be lost to automation, and that there could be a ‘pandemic of loneliness’.

After setting out its concerns, the report suggests the need for a new ‘social contract’ and asks “what can individuals now expect from the state, from services and from employers, and what can those organisations expect from us?”

Any ‘hybrid strategy’ it continues, must be “underpinned by a commitment to tackle those barriers to digital access, digital skills and digital confidence”, as well as “ensure that underpinning the relationship between offline and online services must be an acknowledgement of our minimum rights—as patients, students, workers and individuals—to have a real say in whether online or offline is most suitable”.

The inquiry had asked both individuals and organisations to share their concerns about post-pandemic life, receiving thousands of responses through a variety of mediums, which helped shape its themes –  digital inequality; skills and training; data and research; co-operation; resilience, regulation and rights; online harms – and its subsequent recommendations to the government.

The 81-page document features an entire section on the impact of accelerated digital technology in health – which touches on learnings, digital consultations, cost-saving potential, existing innovations and preparing for the hybrid world.

It states: “We believe that digital capacity should be used as an effective new tool in providing some healthcare but can never be seen as a universal solution.”

Using the examples of needing to test patient pressure points or smell wounds, as well as clinicians spotting symptoms by chance, it adds: “There are undoubtedly some medical appointments that cannot, or cannot effectively, be provided remotely…the challenge will be ensuring that all patients receive the best possible healthcare services regardless of the mode in which it is delivered and in line with their choice”.

After citing a range of sources, including statistics and personal testimony from clinicians, the report praises the benefits of digitalisation – convenience, less time and travel required for appointments, quicker access – as well as the challenges – struggles with access, skills, cancellations.

The report raises a need for greater investment in digital health tech services, as well as requesting a government commitment to providing training and equipment, before concentrating on the cost-saving and health-supporting potential of wearable devices.

On the utilisation of existing technologies it quotes Professor Kate Cavanagh, highlighting: “We see headlines about exciting new avenues of research and high-tech ideas that have potential for mental health services, but what we are more likely to see implemented over the next few years, and what resources are needed for, are services that make the best of technologies already widely accessible and ways of working that already have a mature evidence base.

“That will include a need for services to deliver confidently a more blended approach that draws on technology that many people already have access to, adding what is special and supportive in digital technology to well-established, evidence-based practice in face-to-face working.”

Ultimately, for the health section it concludes that: “The government should work to develop a genuinely hybrid healthcare service. In implementing a hybrid healthcare service the government should work with the NHS to evaluate what treatments are suitable to be offered digitally, and provide further funding to research new digital interventions for those specialisms that currently cannot be provided remotely.

“The digitally hybrid healthcare service in England should be underpinned by a code of practice giving patients the right to receive services online or offline, as well as guaranteeing a minimum service standard for both online and offline healthcare services, including a right to contact their doctor digitally.”

The full report can be read online here.