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From rehabilitative robotics to automated imaging: educating the workforce for the digital future

19 February 2019. Published by Emma Kislingbury, Associate

An independent review into the future impact of digital technology identifies a pressing need for specialist training within the healthcare workforce.

Our recent blog, which followed the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges' report on AI in healthcare, considered some of the predicaments created by new technology and highlighted the need for adequate training for clinicians.

The Topol Review, commissioned by former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and published last week, explores the impact of technological innovation on the NHS workforce and identifies the need for specialist training for clinicians and the development of new skills. Although the report focuses specifically on the NHS workforce, the issues it addresses are relevant to all clinicians, and the report will make interesting reading for all healthcare providers (including those in the private sector), medical technology producers and insurers.    

We are, in the words of Dr Eric Topol, at a "unique juncture in the history of medicine", with new technologies enabling more individualised care and empowering patients to take a more active role in decisions about treatment.

Genomics, digital medicine and AI-based technologies all have the potential to transform healthcare: genomics can provide for more accurate diagnoses of genetic-based diseases; digital medicine is already giving patients greater control over their own healthcare needs; and AI could lead to faster (and potentially more accurate) diagnoses, easing the burden on clinicians and allowing more time for one-to-one patient care.

However, the potential advantages of technological innovation will only be realised if organisations are sufficiently prepared, and have the required skills, to adopt new technology in a safe and effective way.

Topol predicts that within 20 years, 90% of all jobs in the NHS will require some element of digital skills. Healthcare providers will not only need to invest in the technology itself, but also in training people with the right professional skills to support this changing environment. Without appropriately trained staff, and reliable and effective systems to guarantee the safety of healthcare technologies, we will face new safety risks which could result in harm to patients. Clinicians need to understand both the opportunities digital technology can offer, and its limitations, including the potential consequences of relying on and trusting innovative developments (such as machine learning) too blindly or too quickly.

There needs to be close collaboration between manufacturers, industry regulators and clinicians to share knowledge and review the regulatory requirements of new technologies, alongside cyber security and data privacy issues. The increasing complexity of regulating digital technologies calls for additional training for staff at the MHRA and other regulators, to ensure that they "continue to be able to provide meaningful regulatory oversight”.

This approach will be critical to establishing a framework for the safe development of new technologies and how they are regulated to protect patients and reduce the risk of harm.  

Health Education England chief executive Ian Cumming has said that recommendations in the Topol Review would be “made a reality” through the development of the workforce implementation plan (to support the NHS Long Term Plan).

If, as predicted by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the UK is to deliver the most advanced health and care service in the world, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the balance of skills within the workforce, and, as Topol concludes, "there is no time to waste".