The Digital Skills Emergency: How do we ready our healthcare system for revolution?

  • July 8, 2021
  • Rachel Dunscombe
  • 5 min read

Accelerating developments in technology areas across data, AI, and cloud are unlocking new capabilities and efficiencies for organisations in all industries, including and above all medicine and healthcare. As the competition ramps up to find and retain a digitally enabled workforce, both public and private organisations must understand and anticipate their needs to implement vital changes. Tektology’s Executive Chairman David Roberts and Director Rachel Dunscombe explore the causes of and solutions to today’s skills crisis with Kubrick’s Co-Founder Simon Walker and their partner Genomics England, utilising live data from a focus group of 43 healthcare sector members in the UK and across the world to align their insights and conclusions with experiences on the ground.

The reality of the digital skills crisis is indisputable. According to research from Microsoft conducted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the chasm is only set to expand in the wake of lockdowns in order to meet the demands of the new remote world[1].

Microsoft June 2021

In fact, when we first posed the question of the whether or not our focus group believed their country/region was experiencing a digital skills crisis, 25% of respondents were unsure and one respondent firmly believed they were not. By the end of discussion, only 1 respondent reported to be unsure of its existence and no one denied it. In the healthcare sector, the gap is visible and growing: the NHS currently has a shortage of more than 100,000 staff. Based on current trends, projections estimate this number to reach in excess of 250,000 by 2030.[2] Technological advancements in medicine and healthcare have the potential to transform our society at large, but without the skills to harness them, healthcare systems expose themselves to great cost, risk, and missed opportunity to improve. Consulting the focus group, the most prevalent areas of concern were cloud technology, AI and machine learning, and ‘the basics’ of data literacy and management.

Insight from our focus group – June 2021

Accepting the existence of the skills gap is only the first step for healthcare leaders to address the challenges ahead. Going forwards, they must redefine their own role in order to catalyze digital transformation, taking on new responsibilities which should include:

  1. Developing metrics and evaluation systems to assess the value and effectiveness of interventions.
  2. Aligning education and training provision with strategic local change initiatives and national policy.
  3. Becoming change agents to empower the workforce through transparency of planning and engaging in open conversation surrounding digital transformation.

We can look to the efforts of Genomics England and the leadership of their Director of Data Strategy, Joshua Symons, for a picture of best practice when creating a strategy to address their own skills deficit. With accelerating demand for genomic research and testing by the NHS, they were challenged to increase their workforce by 50% in just one year but faced a talent gap exacerbated by their need for both key domain knowledge and technical skill, as well as competition from a booming life sciences market. Their solution is a three-pronged approach:

  1. Recruitment: Leveraging third-party digital enablement suppliers who can guarantee expertise in the skills needed, as exemplified in their partnership with Kubrick, whilst improving candidate attraction for permanent hires with clear communication on their benefits, culture, and the incredible value of their work.
  2. Recognition: Implementing a transparent skills matrix across the workforce to guide upskilling efforts, incentivised by pay rises based upon the matrix.
  3. Investment: In addition providing the framework of the skills matrix, they offer all employees a £500 budget for development and training of their choosing – no strings attached.

Although the current skills gap requires immediate action, leaders cannot lose sight of long-term strategy. In order to futureproof the workforce, there are two major obstacles to overcome: an aging population and a gender divide in the technology industry. The latter has remained notably unbalanced throughout the last decade, with less than 18% of technology roles occupied by employees who identify as female[3]. Yet, without diversity of thought and experience in the teams which implement and use technology solutions, organisations may fail to mitigate against harmful biases within their data which can ultimately undermine their investment – or worse, put a patient at risk.

Tackling both obstacles begins with reframing our understanding of what makes a technology expert. In most education systems, the vast majority of female students stop engaging in STEM subjects at a young age. By training junior professionals from arts and business backgrounds in digital skills instead of making STEM degrees a prerequisite, we can simultaneously increase gender diversity, drive an influx of young talent into the healthcare sector, and harness equally pivotal soft skills which are not often cultivated in the science classroom.

The UK education pipeline: comparing the number of students who achieve 1st and 2:1 classified degrees in STEM subjects with the number of graduates in STEM and ‘data-aligned’ subjects (i.e., perform research and analytics). Source: Kubrick, 2020

Just as the skills emergency will impact organisations of all sizes and sectors, the solution may well require strong collaboration across business, government, and education providers. When asked to provide suggestions for action, our focus group put a clear emphasis on investment and policy change to increase education within digital skills from a young age, whilst also recognising the potential for private companies with more developed and well-funded digital initiatives to share the knowledge and empower public sector and NGOs to advance their capabilities too. Collaboration starts with a conversation – perhaps this very one could be the catalyst to spark change.

To watch the full conversation, visit: https://www.kubrickgroup.com/insights/digital-skills-emergency-in-healthcare-webinar


[1] https://blogs.microsoft.com/blog/2020/06/30/microsoft-launches-initiative-to-help-25-million-people-worldwide-acquire-the-digital-skills-needed-in-a-covid-19-economy/

[2] NHS Long-term-plan, 2019: https://www.longtermplan.nhs.uk