A Digital Inclusion project across Staffordshire, funded and supported by the NHS, is illustrating how easily people can use digital technology ​to support ​their health and wellbeing.

The project is supported by the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent STP Technology Enabled Care Services Programme, and funding ​allocated by NHSE.

The project has provided free of charge Amazon Echo devices to people across Staffordshire who are frail, suffer with poor mental health, or have physical, long term health problems.

The aim of this project was to establish whether the Amazon Echo, a hands-free digital device which is available at a relatively affordable price, and features a built in virtual assistant known as Alexa, could provide people with easy to use digital technology, to support their health and wellbeing, and promote self-care.

Prior to March 2020, a total of 145 Amazon Echo devices were distributed throughout health, social care, and voluntary organisations​ across Staffordshire. Follow-up evaluations of those who had received the devices, showed an increased adherence to taking medication and attending health appointments, as well as observing healthy eating tips, exercise advice and mindfulness.

The Amazon Echo device can also act as companionship to those living alone, by providing up to date news and weather, access to the radio and music streaming services, and contact with family and friends via its voice activated video and voice calls. The project also worked with a diabetes support group in East Staffordshire and local people with diabetes, alongside a GP with a special interest in the condition, to produce an ‘Alexa Skill’, an app which can be enabled on the Echo device. This Alexa Skill is now available to anyone with an Amazon Echo device, and provides information and advice on diabetes, along with practical advice on diet and healthcare.

When lockdown was introduced due to Covid-19 in late March, the project continued to provide Amazon Echo devices to those who had to self-isolate, particularly those living alone, and suffering from the health conditions that the project had focused on prior to lockdown.

Wavemaker, a community interest company based in Stoke-on-Trent, and a partner organisation to the project, initially installed the Amazon Echo devices, and provided follow-up support. Following the introduction of lockdown restrictions, Wavemaker adapted their approach and developed self-install video guides to help users install the devices themselves, along with a guide providing information on how to begin using the device. The guides have proven extremely successful, people can now self-install their own devices and request remote support from Wavemaker if they encounter difficulties.

Alex Rowley, Director and Chief Technical Officer at Wavemaker said: “As the technical partner on this project, it has been an honour to be involved and aid in the implementation of these devices for people in need. We have long known that digital assistants can offer so much to the health care sector, but to experience and witness the benefits first-hand has been fantastic.”

Evaluation of the effective use of the Echo device is completed through a telephone call made by a medical student 2 to 3 months after the device has been installed.​ The team have published their experiences in 4 separate articles in national health journals and further evaluations have been underway. Initial feedback is positive, with people from various age groups, and with a range of physical and mental health problems, reporting that the Echo device has had a positive effect on their daily lives.

Initial findings also reported that many have found the device to be particularly helpful under the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, by providing those who are shielding with a window to the outside world and a means of social interaction. Reduced levels of anxiety, panic attacks and stress have also been reported, potentially due to the range of exercise, mood and meditation skills that are free and convenient to access through the Echo device.

Ron Daley, Project Manager for the Digital Inclusion Project added: “The journey we have taken introducing digital technology into people’s everyday life has brought results much wider than the project ever envisaged. The benefit of these digital assistants in supporting people’s health and wellbeing across all age groups as well as reducing the impact on health and social care services has been great to see.”

In total ​a further 250 Echo devices have now been distributed through this project​ since the start of the COVID pandemic.
This is one of a number of initiatives introduced by the Digital Inclusion project, further information on Amazon Alexa and Echo devices, along with other projects, can be found on the digihealthwell website.

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