Disadvantaged left behind in digital age

disadvantaged-left-behind-in-digital-age-030412In a world where access to services is just a click away for many people, the well-off will prosper while the disadvantaged struggle to keep up as the digital divide widens and deepens.

That’s the message from Dr Lareen Newman, a senior research fellow at Flinders University’s Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity.

An expert in the social determinants of health, Dr Newman warns that as more health services go online in a bid to widen their reach, marginalised groups including the unemployed, elderly, disabled and educationally disadvantaged risk being left behind.

“A lot of services these days want people to download apps or log onto their websites to find information or contact them but they need to know who actually has and can use those technologies or people will miss out – and it’s usually the ones who are already disadvantaged,” Dr Newman said.

“We assume that everyone’s got computers and iPhones these days but the data shows that’s not the case and there will always be people who have faster and better technologies, just as there will always be people who are better at dealing with things face-to-face,” she said.

“Digital communication can be useful, such as between visits to a health service, and it does have the potential to broaden peoples’ access but only if it’s done in a considered way.”

Dr Newman has used her research on digital inequalities to help inform and influence policy, in particular the implementation of the State Government’s Strategic Plan which sets out a target to increase the number of South Australians using broadband so the percentage exceeds the national average.

She said that while the blueprint has its benefits, any digital plans for the future must consider minority groups and their capacity to access services.

“Even something as simple as sending a text can be a lot more complicated for people who don’t have the knowledge, social support or finances,” Dr Newman said.

“A lot of mobile phone and Internet companies also require you to go on a plan and that’s just not a financially viable option for some people.”

In recent years Dr Newman’s work has focused on the wider social influences on health across a range of areas, including the health and wellbeing impact of car manufacturer Mitsubishi’s decision to retrench more than 1000 workers from its Adelaide plant in 2004.

She is also currently working with the Modern Greek section of Flinders Language Department to investigate how older Greek migrants can be better supported to live in the community longer.

“Education, work, housing, income and social networks all shape a person’s wellbeing and influence their chances of living a happy, healthy life,” Dr Newman said.

“A lot of health policies are focused on waiting lists and injecting more funds into hospitals but we should also be looking at the social determinants of health because services account for about 15 per cent of our health and the other 85 per cent is actually the conditions in which you live and work.”

Dr Newman is a recipient of Flinders University’s Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for Early Career Researchers, an annual prize which aims to recognise individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to research at the University since finishing their PhD.

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2 thoughts on “Disadvantaged left behind in digital age

  1. Access and Equality are an interesting concepts in health especially in SA!

    Dear Dr Newman,

    Do you realize that the Epass system soon be implemented in SA health will only be implemented in the city and not be implemented in country health (except for the two hospitals in the country chosen for Epass as test sites to work through its problem of implementation before coming to the city)?

    Do you realize that Public hospital staff cannot easily access GP or private health records?

    Not to mention inversed proportional differences hospital bed capacities and resources in hospital between rich (eastern and city )and poor (northern) suburbs?

    Digital or not? deal with the above first!


  2. Thank you Dr Newman. This is a very worthwhile discussion about accessibility, capabilities and poverty. I’ve lived in entrenched poverty that meant making a simple phone call required me to know where a number of public phones were located just so I could make a basic call. Unfortunately, many professionals working with vulnerable individuals, particularly those in high paced jobs with many ‘benefits’ attached as part of their salary packages are supplied with all the mod con’s and even if they have experience poverty for brief periods in their lives they no longer have the ability to empathise with the hardship experienced by people who cannot access basic services easily. A lack of access to technology locks people out of opportunities and it entrenches disadvantage even further. If it’s not a bare necessity it’s one of the things you put aside as it’s not essential for daily living – like food or access to essential services such as gas and electricity or a roof over your head. Most pensioners and unemployed people are living on subsistance levels of income and since you don’t need an i-phone to exist you make that sacrifice. What it means tho is people returning to work need to have additonal supports available to assist them with the additional embarrassment of overcoming this as a further barrier to employment. My return to work was horrific as I absolutely had no supports to assist me to overcome the barriers to my participation in the workforce and this created an additional hurdle I had to try to cross.
    In response to Frustrated Individual’s comment, the health sector is one of the most competitive sectors. Each different speciality and location competes with the other for funding or for access to the next greatest or newest technology and it’s a cycle that feeds on itself. I worked in one hospital and had to learn how to use three or four different digital dictation systems in three or four different specialist units. SA Health then wonders why funding costs are excessive but staff costs blow out rapidly when licence fees have to be paid for access to each new program in each each new site. But other issues such as accessing affordable housing when information about property listings is contained on websites, concessions, discounts for resteraunts or holiday packages – individuals without access to techology or the techno app’s are cut out of access to all of these things and they are inaccessible if you are living in real true entrenched poverty – particulary since many things require further investment in new add ons or updates or liscences are only valid for 12 months.
    I think the rapid advances in technology have created a new definition that can be applied to the concept of ‘generational change’. In Liberal Theory, social changes are supposed to occur gradually through generational change. In the digital age, new computer techonolgy is released every 7 weeks which renders the previous generation obsolete or incompatible. I think this has created a whole re-definition of liberal theory from the perspective that the whole of society has sped up and in order to keep pace you need to run faster and faster and earn larger and larger salaries. This is a radical impairment when you are talking about increased levels of competition and an individuals capacity to engage or to have the capacity to compete on an even playing field. The new generation or next generation occurs so rapidly that individuals living in poverty are left by the wayside and excluded from multiple opportunities for social participation. It perpetuates and reinforces social exclusion on many levels in many different spheres.

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