How technology is shifting healthcare demand
X-Ray being examined by two medical staff.

Stacey Hayes-Allen, director of corporate partnerships at Arden University, looks at how the drive for digitisation and technological developments – such as AI and automation – are impacting the healthcare sector and shifting the skills in demand.

In a report published in 2020, the NHSE&I outlined its expectations for the NHS to reach a core level of digitisation by 2024. But, with 2024 now well underway, insights from GlobalData suggest the number one obstacle facing healthcare professionals on the journey to digital transformation is a shortage of specialist skills (43 per cent).

How tech is changing the health and care sector

Recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation have sparked fears around job security in many industries, including health and care. Yet some remain optimistic, with the NHS Long Term Workplace Plan, for instance, maintaining a positive outlook of integrating technology into the health and care system.

There are many different elements where technology and digitisation will inject themselves into the health and care sector. 

From being able to see patients quicker, streamlining administration and potentially being able to harness chatbots to save time, all the way to more technical capabilities, such as writing genomes, using AI for diagnostics and utilising robotics for assistance in surgery.

The benefits are rife. Digital transformation could potentially allow those in the industry to see more patients while still prioritising patient care, and those in need of medical support should hopefully be diagnosed quicker and on the road to recovery sooner.

Even though a lot of the groundbreaking technology advancements, such as robotics, could fundamentally transform healthcare – there remain huge gains to be made with digitisation on a somewhat simpler level. 

For example, some studies have shown that over 70 per cent of a clinician’s working time is spent on administrative tasks, and 44 per cent of all administrative work in general practice can be mostly or fully automated. Digitisation has the potential to save time and ensure patients get the care they need.

There is a need to raise awareness of the importance of digital literacy among the health and social care workforce, however. 

To succeed in today’s digital age, workers must develop the necessary skills, attitudes and behaviours to become digitally competent and confident. In fact, according to the Topol Review, within 20 years, 90 per cent of all jobs in the NHS will require some element of digital skills, stating that “staff will need to be able to navigate a data-rich healthcare environment” and will need “digital and genomics literacy”. 

Access to training and support to nurture the skills that will enable patients to improve their health and well-being through technology is also becoming increasingly important. This shift will create new career opportunities for some workers in the health and care sector. 

The skills in demand

The initial advantages of AI and robotics will include: automating tedious, repetitive tasks that don’t require much human cognitive power, better robot-assisted surgery and optimising logistics. 

However, its main power is how it will streamline patient care and touchpoints throughout their diagnosis and treatment, so it’s essential for staff to have a complete understanding of data validity and accuracy.

Analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2019 found that medical practitioners were one of the three occupations at the lowest risk of automation, mostly due to the fact that many tasks in healthcare are difficult to automate. This is because they require traits or competencies that AI and other technologies currently struggle to replicate.

Critical thinking, communication skills and emotional intelligence are central to many health and care roles. Staff, management and even administrative workers must weigh up the benefits and risks of different possibilities, approaches and solutions and tap into their emotional intelligence to make the patient’s journey as easy as possible. 

Often, experience in the industry helps hone these skills, which is why upskilling staff on digitisation is important – they already have the skills that AI cannot replace but need new knowledge and expertise to be able to integrate technology efficiently, legally and effectively.

It’s important to note that the full benefits of digital medicine, such as earlier diagnosis, personalised care and treatment, can only be realised for the sector if health and care records are fully digitised and integrated. With the introduction of integrated care systems, the demand for highly trained managers in  health and social care will most certainly increase.

A diverse range of job opportunities are linked to progression from this unique offering, including roles in leadership and management across the health and care sectors in both public, private and third-party sectors. 

Workforce development is necessary to understand the best ways to deploy data-driven technologies to support and improve working practices – this will require a different ‘business-minded’ skillset for health and care organisations, as well as digital know-how. This will make it easier to improve ease of access and decrease non-attendance rates, as well as reduce unplanned admissions.

Patient safety will also be the centre of the integration of new technologies, so health organisations must work with regulators, cyber security and data privacy professionals to ensure transparent, resilient, robust and legally enforceable practices.

This means training will need to involve specialists from other industries to improve regulation and assessment of digital technologies.

Equipping the workforce

The health and care sector encounters exceptional challenges when it comes to finding appropriate upskilling opportunities. It’s important to design programmes that facilitate a cultural shift, enhance leadership capabilities and maximise system efficiency. However, achieving this is a daunting task. So, how can it be accomplished?

As listed in the Topol Review, collaboration between academia and industry, and attracting global technical talent through new degree apprenticeships and Masters schemes is a key part of bridging the skills gap. 

On top of this, research has shown that health and care employees are best prepared to perform their jobs well if they have comprehensive information, clear learning opportunities, feedback along the way to build their confidence, support to innovate and develop new and improved ways of providing patient care and trust in their supervisors and leaders. 

Utilising apprenticeship degrees not only act as a huge step in widening access to senior positions and closing the skills gap, but it also helps attract and retain talent – an aspect that is important in the industry at the moment as digitisation is at bay.

It is essential to identify potential leaders at the onset of any new technological advancement. Creating networks to facilitate collaborative learning is also crucial. Providing accredited continuous professional development (CPD) and flexible ongoing training, along with career opportunities, such as portfolio careers in academia or industry, will play a crucial role in driving change.

When it comes to closing the skills gap, working with those already in the industry will play a big role for the health and care sector. 

There will be a bigger demand for business-level management to help navigate digitisation, but a strong knowledge of the health and care industry is fundamentally needed. The industry has its own requirements: it’s not about meeting the bottom line to gain more profit, it’s about streamlining processes to help practitioners help patients. 

This is why upskilling those already within your healthcare organisation with the digital and management capabilities needed is vital – they could help narrow the gap.