The digital revolution is coming and the NHS needs to be ready

Stephen Barclay, Minister of State for Health and Social Care, believes that it is important the NHS is “future-fit” to embrace the digital revolution.

Aided by the rapid advance of new technologies, the science of human health is starting to be digitised. Sophisticated smartphone apps are being used to continuously monitor a patient’s vital signs, opening up new ways of managing long term conditions such as diabetes. Artificial intelligence is revolutionising diagnostics, with machine learning technologies set to improve the accuracy and speed of diagnosis. Developments in medical imaging technologies are helping to bring the diagnostic arsenal of a hospital out into the community, while robotics and augmented reality technology is similarly delivering profound changes in surgical practice. Perhaps most significantly of all, the development of genomic science, supported by our world-leading 100,000 Genomes Project, is poised to transform our understanding and treatment of rare or hereditary diseases.

Digital transformation

There’s not a single professional group or specialism within the NHS that will be untouched by the way digital technologies shape their work over the next decade or two.

From understanding the algorithms and analytical tools necessary to process big data sets, to the management challenges of information governance and data protection, as well as the highly specialised training to use new forms of equipment, these will mean equipping teams with a new set of skills and knowledge, as well as potentially creating new professional roles.

It will also, in some cases, shift the way the NHS provides care – most obviously in the increasing use of online consultations and remote monitoring of long term conditions – meaning that clinicians will need to have confidence to maintain patient relationships through different media and support patients’ abilities to self-manage care.

Some technologies may also open up potentially difficult ethical questions that the skilled professional will need to manage in discussion with their patients.

New skills needed

All of this points to a capability challenge. NHS staff need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to unleash the full, transformative potential of these new technologies, many of which simply were not in existence when many parts of the current workforce were in training.

That is why the renowned American academic and technologist Dr Eric Topol has been asked to deliver a landmark review into the workforce implications of new technology. Dr Topol’s study will cover the full span of technological change, drawing in support from established experts to forecast the potential skills that will be needed and how best to build capability across the NHS workforce. His findings will inform the workforce strategy that Health Education England are developing.

While much of the current debate about workforce focuses on the recruitment and retention issues facing the NHS, which is being tackled by increasing medical training places, it is just as important is producing doctors and nurses with the right skills set to practice modern medicine.

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