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Highlights • Digital access and triage involves a network of technological and human agents. • Digitalised systems exacerbate existing inequities, and create new ones. • Technologies are encoded with assumptions, limiting their use and accessibility. • These assumptions lock out some users, recursively affecting health service usage. • Individual practices' digital options must depend on local staff and patient needs. Abstract To access contemporary healthcare, patients must find and navigate a complex socio-technical network of human and digital actors linked in multi-modal pathways. Asynchronous, digitally-mediated triage decisions have largely replaced synchronous conversations between humans. In this paper, we draw on a large qualitative dataset from a multi-site study of remote and digital technologies in general practice to understand widening inequities of access. We theorise our data by bringing together traditional candidacy theory (in particular, concepts of self-assessment, help-seeking, adjudication and negotiation) and socio-technical and technology structuration theories (in particular, concepts of user configuration, articulation, distanciation, disembedding, and recursivity), thus producing a novel theory of digital candidacy. We propose that both human and technological actors (in different ways) embody social structures which affect how they ‘act’ in social situations. Digital technologies contain inbuilt assumptions about users' capabilities, needs, rights, and skills. Patients' ability to self-assess as sick, access digital platforms, self-advocate, and navigate multiple stages in the pathway, including adapting to and compensating for limitations in the technology, vary widely and are markedly patterned by disadvantage. Not every patient can craft an accurate digital facsimile on which the subsequent adjudication decision will be made; those who create incomplete, flawed or unpersuasive digital facsimiles may be deprioritised or misdirected. Staff who know about such patients may use articulation measures to ensure a personalised and appropriate access package, but they cannot identify or fully mitigate all such cases. The decisions and actions of human and technological agents at the time of an attempt to access care can significantly influence, disrupt, and reconstitute candidacy both immediately and recursively over time, and also recursively shape the system itself. These findings underscore the need for services to be (co-)designed with attention to the exclusionary tendencies of digital technologies and technology-supported processes and pathways.

More information Original publication



Journal article




Social Science & Medicine Volume 349, May 2024, 116885


Elsevier B.V

Publication Date





Francesca Dakin's DPhil is funded by the NIHR School of Primary Care Research (SPCR) [award number 1189008].