Every aspect of life in New Zealand is increasingly being digitalised, with data being generated by both government and non-governmental organisations that span education, income, employment, housing, benefits, migration, justice, and health. Additionally, goods and services from on line retail or banking to news, sources of vital advice and the very mechanisms of civic inclusion now rely on access to the internet. Differential access, affordability and digital literacy has exacerbated significant communication inequalities; differences in the generation, use, manipulation, and distribution of information can disadvantage the already vulnerable.
A 2015 MBIE study found that internet access for both Māori and Pacifica was lower than for other groups in New Zealand. It also reported that those who rented a house or flat from HNZC or the local (social housing) equivalent had the lowest proportion of people with internet access; considerably lower than home-owners. Retirees (especially those over 75) and the disabled had the least access. The rural-urban divide has recently benefitted from the roll out of ultra-fast broad band, aided by funding from the government strategic priorities relating to the digital domain including internet access (Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment & Stats NZ, 2019), though there have been arguments that wealthy farmers may have benefitted more than rural poor.
In the health sphere, communication inequalities affect health-related outcomes. The social determinants of health (particularly education, housing and income) impact how people access, seek out, process, and use health-related information. Communication influences all aspects of health including prevention, diagnosis, treatment, survivorship, and end-of life care. While technological developments can bring significant advantages to patients, these advantages are primarily realized by those with greater resources, widening health disparities.
Research suggests that community access, combined with point of use assistance where needed is an effective way of providing internet, computer and printer access to people in areas that might not be readily served. This could occur through installing additional computers in libraries and community centres and by providing free wireless internet in places like parks, buses, or churches.
The recently published The five point plan for digital inclusion, arguing for affordable, strengthened infrastructure, device access and provision through library internet services and using community services like Citizens Advice Bureau, providing support and digital skills teaching and longer term internet resilience could be a very useful and necessary initiative.
Until the digital divide is addressed, those in public health and health communications must remember that those most reliant on high quality health messages and advice may be the least able to access sources that seem increasingly solely reliant on social media and the internet.