Helplines going digital: what it means to be a finalist at this year's Digital Leader Awards

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Being a finalist in the Non-Government Organisation (NGO) category of this year's Digital Leaders Awards is, without doubt, a great honour for Helplines Partnership and its members. 

The Awards are given - on the basis of nomination and open voting - by "Digital by Default News" which supports networking and best practices for professionals involved in public sector eServices in the UK. As such, the Awards highlight the government's digital by default campaign for the digital transformation of services of local authorities and councils, as well as central government.

Helplines Partnership has been a thought leader in developing ideas, services and operational models on how digital technologies should be employed in helplines. It constantly strives to provide its members with best practices, quality training, support services, and innovative products that respond to the way society changes in the age of digital.

For instance, research by Nightline Association, a member of Helplines Partnership, has shown that there is a slightly greater preference among university students to access help services through instant messaging rather than by phone. Digital platforms often preserve anonymity of the caller, and this is valued very highly amongst young males, as the research has shown.

The speed and adaptability of helplines to embrace new ways of working and to be accessible to their callers is a key strength of the sector. Helplines encourage vulnerable callers to channel shift where appropriate. So, for example, a young person may first engage with a helpline service through a series of text messages. The call handler will encourage the young person to shift to either a voice call or to instant messenger so that the caller’s challenges can be explored in more depth, and better support can be given. There is no doubt that in order to reach the younger population, digital technologies are essential.

Helplines Partnership currently promotes solutions that integrate telephone, email, SMS, social networking and instant messaging. The functionality and uniqueness of the new Helplines Partnership platform enables the organisation to deliver information management services for helplines digitally across the globe, with visitor statistics having increased by three times in the last 12 months. It has been estimated that the sector has around 50 million contacts with members of the public each year. Demand for some helplines is increasing, with rises in call volumes of 40% and there have been great strides in moving towards greater Internet uptake within the population. Increased demand, diminished government funding and changing public attitudes towards digital technologies suggest that helplines is a field open for new ideas and for innovation.

Innovating across Europe

Helplines Partnership is currently a member of a pan-European research consortium bidding for funds from EU's Horizon 2020 programme. The aim of the consortium is to develop a novel communication system through which people with chronic disease can quickly and effectively access health services. "Health 2.0" means digitally transforming the delivery of health and thus moving significant parts of it away from acute hospital settings. A number of innovative platforms already exist, facilitating peer-to-peer and patient-doctor interactions through new media technologies. Helplines Partnership is particularly interested in ‘Health 2.0’, as many of its members already deliver crucial aspects of health support to chronic patients and the elderly through helplines. The aim of the European research consortium is to go several steps forward on the roadmap of digital transformation, by developing an innovative communication layer of a virtual hospital, where chat-by-click and multiple-choice communications can take place between a patient and a virtual agent (including video snippets and avatars). The sky is the limit when it comes to digital innovation and Helplines Partnership aims to be at the forefront of this new, exciting, and promising communications revolution. Nevertheless, there are members in our society who have not - and sometimes cannot - catch up with cutting edge digital technologies. These people also happen to be the most vulnerable.

Striking a balance in the era of digital

Helplines Partnership research and experience shows that helpline callers in the UK come from very diverse groups. Some of these groups are harder to reach or have more complex needs, such as children, young people, older people, disabled people, people with mental health problems and people from diverse ethnic/cultural backgrounds. Helplines are increasingly moving to be deliverers of multi-channel non face-to-face help provision, using newer forms of technology such as Skype, social media, email, text and instant messaging. The move towards email support has been a particularly strong trend, which can be seen in helplines supporting a wide demographic of users. Use of text, instant messaging and Skype tends to be seen more in helplines that are targeted towards younger people, encompassing children, young adults and adults under 30, whereas helplines supporting older people have noted a rise in the numbers of emails that they receive.

While the sector is good at adopting new technology, the older style contact methods remain important as well. Research that Helplines Partnership did last year showed that payphones remain an important access route for vulnerable people including prisoners, people in secure mental health facilities, people living in abusive situations, homeless people, and people who do not have the funds to keep a mobile phone topped up. Visually impaired people are another category for whom voice communication is a first choice. The "lowest common denominator" is getting smaller but will never disappear. As exceptionally vulnerable groups become evermore digitally marginalised, the good old telephone will remain the only means through which they can access much-needed, and sometimes vital, human support. Striking a fine balance in the era of digital means Helplines Partnership must never cease to strive for inclusiveness, for every person that needs help, even if that means continuing to support technologies from the previous century.

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