The COVID-19 social distancing policies enacted across the country and the increasing use of virtual models of care are highlighting, now more than ever, why it is essential for people in rural areas to have basic digital skills.
Despite some recent improvements in access, people living in regional and rural areas of Australia are still considerably less digitally included than their metro peers. Rural Australians have been shown to have reduced access to affordable internet-connected devices plus limited confidence and skills to get online when compared to people living in our cities. Some people in rural areas are at higher risk of being left behind as the world moves online, including low-income families; those with less education; people who are unemployed; people (particularly women) aged over 65; people with a disability; Indigenous Australians; and new migrants and refugees.
We have long heard that telehealth, in particular, can bring huge benefits for people living in rural areas in accessing high-quality health care. The restrictions put in place during the pandemic saw telehealth become mainstream, with the University of Queensland Centre for Online Health reporting that 43.3 million telehealth consults were conducted between March and December 2020. However, the digital divide in rural areas means that the rapid transition towards online delivery models for health services could further contribute to health inequalities for people living in these locations. In addition, while COVID-19 has presented a big motivator for people to get online, it is possible that it has actually widened the digital divide with people unable to access their usual places of support, internet connections or having less income available for telecommunications.
Research tells us that measures addressing issues of connectivity or affordability alone, while important, will not close the digital divide between city and country in Australia. For us at Good Things Foundation, this comes as no surprise. Our network of 3,500 community organisations has supported hundreds of thousands of people to improve their digital literacy since 2017. More than half of our community partners – 54 per cent - are located in regional or remote locations right across Australia, showing us the real need for support in these communities.
Just before COVID-19, our Health My Way program kicked off with 75 organisations in our network across the country. The focus of this program on supporting people to use digital technology to manage their health could not have been better timed. With our support, our partners have been helping people in their communities to get the right health information from a reputable source, or download a trustworthy health and wellbeing app. These basic skills are essential right now. If you don't know what an app is, let alone how to download one, then how will you participate in the Australian Government's recommended approach to our country's long-term health and safety?
Despite COVID-restrictions, many of our community partners have found creative ways to keep in touch with their communities and provide ongoing digital skills support by adopting social distancing measures and technology. We have heard stories of organisations telephoning their members to teach them Zoom remotely, putting in place clear screens between tutor and learner, or setting up loan devices to ensure they could continue to provide support.
Others are playing an essential role ensuring people can access vital services such as telehealth, including vital mental health services, by providing digitally-connected venues and technology. Thanks to funding available through the Be Connected program, Middleton Community Hall in Tasmania has been able to get connected to the internet, offer free wifi, and provide online mental health support during the pandemic.
An unexpected positive outcome of the pandemic has been that many community organisations have themselves upskilled staff and volunteers to enable online delivery of the vital community services they provide. Many are now delivering their services, including digital literacy support, using a mix of online, telephone and face-to-face models.
We are reminded that the key to digital inclusion is found in the heart of the community – local organisations committed to supporting their community to not be left behind. By upskilling community organisations in rural areas to deliver locally-relevant digital skills support, they can help their community keep pace with the rapidly changing shape of health care delivery and information provision. This will reduce the need to travel often great distances for assessment and treatment, and help consumers manage their own health and care better.
Whatever the new normal of health looks like, it will involve digital and it needs to be inclusive of all people living in our rural communities.