Invest in workforce training to realise the potential of digital technologies, review warns

Investment in training and support will be required for the existing NHS workforce to embrace emerging technologies, according to a new report.

By 2040, nine out of 10 jobs in the NHS will have “some element of digital skills”, and the workforce will require “digital and genomics literacy” if the promise of technological innovations is to be realised, the Topol review, published today in partnership with Health Education England, warns.

Former health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt asked Dr Eric Topol, US cardiologist, digital medicine expert, EVP and Professor of Molecular Medicine at The Scripps Research Institute, to lead an independent review considering the impact of new technologies on the roles of clinical staff within the next two decades, their skills and the wider consequences on the training of the current and future NHS workforce.

In the report, the authors put emphasis on three changes expected to take place in the next 20 years:

  • More and more people having their genome sequenced
  • Patients generating and interpreting more of their health data at home
  • The “speed, accuracy and scalability of medical data interpretation” from AI growing “exponentially”, providing support for all clinicians.

“Taken together, this will lead to an evolution of the patient-doctor relationship that we hope can be greatly strengthened, along with the alleviation of burnout that currently affects a significant proportion of clinicians,” Dr Topol said.

The experts propose three principles for the deployment of digital technologies, looking at genomics, digital medicine, AI and robotics:

  • Including patients as partners and informing them about the potential and impact of health technologies, focusing on “vulnerable/ marginalised groups”
  • Providing the expertise and guidance required for the workforce to evaluate and commission digital technologies
  • Using the adoption of tech, when possible, to free up time for healthcare staff to interact more with patients and “enhance the patient-clinician relationship”.

According to the report, the NHS should look to collaborate further with academia and the industry by introducing so-called “industry exchange networks” and by expanding the NHS Digital Academy. 

The review also considers the legal and ethical implications of deploying digital technologies, warning that, in spite of advances that have accelerated the ability to analyse and interpret data using AI, the “uneven NHS data quality, gaps in information governance and lack of expertise remain major barriers” to adoption.

“Without a legally enforceable and effective system of data governance, which the British public regard as ethical, respectful of rights, and secure and trustworthy, the promises of digital healthcare technologies could be undermined,” authors warn.

They also argue that “capability must be developed within the NHS to identify and understand algorithmic bias” and to ensure data does not “reinforce structural discrimination and inequalities”.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said the report would “act as a blueprint as we implement our Tech Vision and Long Term Plan for the NHS”.

Sam Shah, NHS England Director of Digital Development, told Healthcare IT News:

“The launch of the Topol review marks a welcome junction in the transformation of the NHS, it offers us an opportunity to focus on technology that will augment our workforce whilst continuing to incorporate genomics, digital medicine and AI-based technologies into our future; digital development of the NHS continues to be very exciting.”

However, Adam Steventon, Director of Data Analytics at the Health Foundation, said “making this strategy a reality will require Herculean effort from people at all levels of the NHS”.

“The strategy published today will be little more than warm words unless workforce shortages are addressed and there is much needed investment in training.

“There will also need to be a cultural shift to enable the NHS to learn from analytics and technological innovation, and to ensure new technology is designed to improve care for those patients with the greatest need,” Steventon added in a statement.

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