The digital health professional: are modern clinicians equipped with the appropriate digital skills?
The rise of technology over the last decades has been paralleled by exponential growth in cutting-edge research and the development of evidence-backed policies and protocols within the medical sector. More recently, the pandemic encouraged health professionals to take their practices online using telehealth and other remote patient monitoring technologies.
Yet compared to other industries, the healthcare sector has bordered on slow to rather resistant to adopting new technologies that improve productivity or free up provider time to allow for better care. Take this 2018 data from US hospitals as an example, which shows that 7/10 institutions were still stuck in the fax or snail mail age to send and receive health records. Similarly, in 2019, the UK’s National Health Service reported that they were still using approximately 130,000 pagers - roughly 10% of the global total.
While the adoption of technology into healthcare is often complex and associated with long compliance and regulatory issues, healthcare professionals are also partly responsible for the slow growth. In the best-selling author Dr. Adam Kay’s Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas, he recalled as his hospital’s rollout of a discharge summary software required “a bunch of IT ‘helpers’, wandering the corridors wearing bright sashes like regional semi-finalists in a Slimmer of the Year competition.”
So how can healthcare professionals take a more proactive role in contributing to the placement of technology within the health space? More importantly, why should they prioritize learning about digital health so that they can work, in active partnership with the developers, engineers, and businesses who actually build them?
The Health Technology Dilemma
The public and specific patient populations have both been keen to adopt technology to manage their health. Fitbit for example has been extremely popular among the general population as a way to keep track of their health. Apps like Headspace, Noom, or Clue enable patients to access health management 24/7. This likely reflects a shifting pattern towards self-care and autonomy for health. As the European Health Parliament points out, as patients make this change, clinicians too will have to keep up in order to continue working side-by-side with them.
Interestingly, the use of ‘algorithms’ are not new to healthcare professionals and perhaps many use it daily without conscious thought. Clinicians and population health policymakers, use risk stratification methods all the time. Tools like APGAR or CHA₂DS₂-VASc scores are all calculated based on predetermined step-by-step instructions for solving a health problem, much like AI. Despite this, it is estimated that 3 out of 4 UK health professionals have heard, seen, or read ‘not very much’ or ‘nothing at all’ about automation and AI.
Digital Literacy for Modern Healthcare
There is growing awareness fueled in part by student demand that nursing and medical school curriculums could and should incorporate society’s technological growth.
Large-scale initiatives, like the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST), are still few and far between but spotlight the significance of a health and technology partnership in academia and research.
In a recent publication, researchers highlighted several digital health topics of importance and built them into a course for medical students. The topics included digital doctor-patient communication, smart devices, and medical apps, telemedicine, virtual reality, computer-assisted surgery, big data, and artificial intelligence. The students who completed this course said they would recommend it to others and even hoped it would one day become a compulsory component of the curriculums.
While integrating basic digital health competency into medical school curriculums is a good start, technology is forever evolving. Even experienced practitioners, nurses, and health professionals should actively participate in continuing education/development courses to regularly update themselves.
To accelerate this, organizations such as the NHS digital academy have created programs and fellowships for working health professionals to amplify digital change. The Medcase learning center also aims to bridge knowledge gaps between health professionals and technology in a bid to jump-start the integration of technology.
The Digital Health Professional
So, how much is an appropriate level of digital knowledge for health professionals? On a fundamental level, they should understand how to build relationships with their patients within the new digital era, the principles of how AI works, and the limitations of the data that is currently being used.
To move healthcare forward and in line with the rest of the world, improving digital skills among health professionals is no doubt an urgent matter. Health technology should not be developed without the input of health experts. Likewise, health experts need to be skilled in advising these developments and integrating them into contemporary clinical practice. Here, not only is the future of healthcare management at stake, but also the future patient-provider relationship, workforce burnout, and medical research.