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Can digital really solve the workforce problem?

July 22, 2022
by Healthcare World

Jyoti Mehan of Health Care First considers how digital can tackle the workforce issue within healthcare

We hear a lot about digital solutions in healthcare, and the fact that these may be the panacea to our problems.

As we well know, healthcare is facing an enormous workforce problem, which was sharply thrust into focus by the pandemic. While those of us in the healthcare sector were becoming increasingly aware of the workforce problem prior to this, the past two years have comprehensively demonstrated the gravity of the issue we are facing. 

But right now, there is a real feeling that digital, and technology, can solve the workforce problem. We have heard so many instances of digital enabling the workforce to be more efficient, such as fully-connected patient management systems, technologies that enable patients to take charge of their own healthcare when applicable, and many more. These solutions have been embraced with open arms, and for good reason. 

Technology is just such an incredibly important field in healthcare – and there’s no way to deny the power and capability for change that it has. Without the benefits of the developments in digital health which we have already experienced, we would really be in a bad place right now. 

However, if we look at technology, and digital innovation at large, healthcare is really lagging behind in its own digital revolution. For instance, if we look to consumer technology – the iPhone was only released in 2007, yet now it’s incredibly rare to find someone who doesn’t own a smartphone. 

Internet banking and fintech have taken massive strides – banking applications have come such a long way now that it’s hard to find a reason to go to the bank in person. Even physical cash is becoming scarcer – retailers nowadays are able to utilise online and card- based payment services which have made a profound impact on both the customer and the businesses themselves. The digital innovations which have occurred in these sectors have changed their industries so much so that right now, they are almost unrecognisable from how they were just ten years ago. 

Using the best of both worlds 

So, we have to ask, why is healthcare falling behind? There is no doubt there is so much that can be digitalised in health care and ensuring the integration of tech is fundamental to realising its benefits. But what is all too easy to forget, especially in comparison to industries such as retail and banking, is that we are not dealing with money and commercial goods; but with people receiving care. These industries particularly engage with highly repeatable tasks, often transactions, that don’t pose as much direct risk to life. As such, the slow pace of digital uptake in healthcare is somewhat necessary – while new technologies can be easily implemented in other sectors, within healthcare, there must necessarily be a stronger and safer methodology. 

There is also the age-old issue of computers vs humans. Computers are undeniably better than humans at many things, information storage, calculation – easily repeatable processes that require data. In the age of AI, there are so many factors that can even be predicted and reliably built upon – algorithms are already incredibly smart, and they show no signs of slowing down soon. But, we can forget how nuanced people are. We haven’t yet built anything that even closely replicates the human brain – the ability to understand small gestures from patients that can’t easily be picked up by a computer, being able to touch, feel, hear, and empathise with a patient is fundamental to developing the best care package, and always will be. 

We can never forget that as we age, we need more care, and even though our children are the next generation and digitally native, the process of ageing hasn’t changed. We naturally become less able to see, hear, hold things, as well as our cognition slowing – and however advanced digital gets, being able to access care with the support of real people will not, and cannot change. Digital exclusion isn’t unique to us now – as digital develops, digital exclusion will remain. 

Digital providers should look at solving the problem of comorbidity and complexity of care requirements in way that releases time to care – not replace it altogether. Technology needs to get even smarter if really wants to help solve the workforce problem – and part of that is solving the easy jobs, the low hanging fruit – but also by making it easier for clinicians to actually do the job that they are skilled at, and that we as patients value. 

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