Review pinpoints digital health skills challenge

By on 11/02/2019
Dr Eric Topol, author of the independent review into the NHS’s digital capabilities (Image courtesy: Brainstorm Health/Flickr).

A major investment in improving workforce skills is needed to ensure that the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) capitalises on the opportunities offered by digital technology, according to a high-level review.

The recommendation is included in the final report of an independent review carried out on behalf of the health secretary by cardiologist, geneticist, and digital medicine researcher Dr Eric Topol.

Topol’s report calls for investment in training to develop a cadre of specialists in the regulation and assessment of digital technologies. “This is an exciting time for the NHS to benefit and capitalise on technological advances,” he writes. “However, we must learn from previous change projects. Successful implementation will require investment in people as well as technology.”

New tech, new skills

The document, which draws on expert input from the UK and overseas, concludes that genomics, digital medicine and artificial intelligence will have a major impact on patient care throughout the NHS in future.

“A number of emerging technologies, including low-cost sequencing technology, telemedicine, smartphone apps, biosensors for remote diagnosis and monitoring, speech recognition and automated image interpretation, will be particularly important for the healthcare workforce,” Topol argues.

But to make use of these technologies, the NHS workforce will have to develop new skills, attitudes and behaviours.

What’s required?

NHS organisations should ensure that their leaders have the capability to direct this agenda, Topol says, and appoint a board-level member and other senior roles with responsibility for advising boards on digital technology.

A board level member should also take responsibility for the adoption of digital healthcare technologies at scale, “with a focus on clinical outcomes and on promoting effective and consistent staff engagement”.

“The NHS must build skills in data provenance, curation and governance, enhance the understanding of ethical considerations and strengthen the necessary skills to carry out critical appraisal,” the report says.

Building on the skills base

Accredited continuous professional development and training will be important to deliver change, the report says, explaining that the NHS should work with academia and industry, attract global technical talent through new apprenticeships and masters schemes, and introduce industry knowledge exchange networks.

Creating a culture of innovation and learning will be critical, it argues: this will require the NHS to cultivate a reputation for training and support; put in place proactive learning activities; offer opportunities to learn and reflect away from the workplace; disseminate the lessons from early adoption; and share examples of best-practice evidence-based initiatives.

According to Topol’s report, NHS boards should also take responsibility for effective knowledge management to support innovation and change.

Learning to lead

“We must better understand the enablers of change and create a culture of innovation, prioritising people, developing an agile and empowered workforce, as well as a digitally capable leadership and effective governance processes to facilitate the introduction of the new technologies, supported by long-term investment,” the report concludes.

Welcoming the report, UK health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Technology must be there to enhance and support clinicians. It has the potential to make working lives easier for dedicated NHS staff and free them up to use their medical expertise and do what they do best: care for patients.”

He said the Topol report will help inform the government’s policies and shape delivery of its long-term plan for the NHS.

About Colin Marrs

Colin Marrs is a journalist specialising in local and national government, as well as architecture and the built environment. Colin previously worked as digital content editor at Campaign, the advertising industry "bible".

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