Data skills are vital for the healthcare industry


All sectors are being transformed by complex and ever-increasing amounts of data. Technology and data are totally transforming the way care is planned, administered, and monitored, not to mention the discovery of novel therapies and diagnosis methods, in the healthcare sector. The potential for improved patient outcomes and cost-effectiveness to unlock further healthcare breakthroughs is enormous.

Will the system, on the other hand, be able to take advantage of the opportunity? The data revolution comes at a difficult time for the UK’s healthcare business. Covid-19 has put enormous burden on private and public healthcare organisations, resulting in protracted periods of personnel shortages and under-investment in the system.

So, how can the system use data to help design a more sustainable, efficient future for healthcare while also improving the quality of treatment provided? One immediate issue that must be addressed is how to close the data skills gap so that the healthcare system has the proper people and abilities to arrive at the correct conclusion.

There is a challenge finding personnel with the skills to stay up with our data-driven future, as evidenced across all parts of the UK workforce – and, indeed, globally. Vacancies for professions requiring an analytical ability are becoming increasingly difficult to fill, with the data skills gap acting as a subset of the larger digital skills gap. It’s a serious problem that’s only getting worse as companies want to take advantage of new technology but can’t find individuals with the necessary skillsets..

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) released a report in 2021 that exposed the scope of the problem for UK businesses. According to a poll of 1,045 organisations, nearly half (48 percent) were hiring for data roles, and a comparable proportion were having difficulty finding individuals. According to the survey, there are approximately 250,000 positions that demand hard data skills right now.

The shortages are alarming, especially given the tremendous prospects that data skills provide. In a 2019 research, the NHS predicted that 90 percent of all employment in the organisation will require some level of digital skills within 20 years, with workers needed to navigate a data-rich healthcare environment.

Data skills across a diverse range of professions

The NHS acts as a microcosm for wider society due to its role as the UK’s largest employer, so its unsurprising that the DCMS’s figures correspond with data skills gaps in the organisation.

This also highlights the need to bridge such gaps in all professions, not just advanced tech positions. While addressing the large number of vacancies for roles such as data scientists, data analysts and data engineers is vital for maintaining a strong digital economy, equal efforts must be made to do the same across all professions.

In fact, data skills are more likely to be beneficial for someone dealing with a lot of information in their day-to-day operations, such as an information analyst who has to research patient waiting times, gather facts and statistics from staff reports and computer records. It is vital that those in these types of decision-making roles are capable of crunching high volumes of data.

Certainly, there are clear benefits of healthcare professionals being able to work with large amounts of data. For example, frontline healthcare staff can be relieved of time-consuming tasks that require outdated methods of collecting and analysing information, allowing this time to be put back into patient interaction. Data could also be gathered from patients to analyse their experiences with medical professionals to discover areas for improvement. Meanwhile, data scientists have utilised artificial intelligence to improve cancer identification rates speeding up diagnosis, and, in turn, treatment of the disease.

The examples are numerous, and as such, it is crucial that the workforce is brought up to speed through sufficient training opportunities.

Addressing the digital skills gap in healthcare

Of course, traditional education systems will play a part. Schools and universities will need to update curriculum to counteract the current skills gap; a 2021 Wordskills UK report that found that the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE had fallen by 40% since 2016, with the number taking A Levels, further education courses and apprenticeships all declining.

This a worrying trend that must be addressed to ensure young people are entering the workforce with the requisite skills employers are seeking. However, equal attention should be paid to helping the current workforce by removing barriers to digital literacy. An OECD report on digitalising the healthcare workforce found that for workers in member countries barriers include a lack of reskilling and upskilling opportunities, resistance to changing technologies, and undesired effects of digital tools such as breaches in data-privacy.

As such, adequate training in data would enable employees to not only harness new tech skills, but also show the value in them. This requires talent pathways – means of training current or prospective employees to ensure they have the highly sought-after skills.

Digital skills bootcamps are a great example of one initiative that is making real progress in this area. For example, with a £7m grant, West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has piloted over 30 digital bootcamps and trained around 2,000 adults with essential tech skills. Now, £21m has been made available from the Adult Education Budget to fund the new bootcamps over the next three years, with a target of supporting more than 4,000 people.

Free for the participants and providing clear pathways for companies to either upskill or hire new talent, the bootcamps are led by experienced industry specialists and play a vital role in equipping the workforce – particularly young people – with the hands-on data training.

Generation is proud to be one of the specialist skills trainers working with the WMCA to deliver the bootcamps, which include pioneering data engineering and data analytics programmes that have been purpose designed over the past two years, orientated around industry needs. After the data engineering programme was successfully launched in the West Midlands in 2020, it has now expanded and is running in multiple locations across the UK.

The emerging digital – and more specifically – data skills gap should act as a wake-up call for all organisations to review their current workforce and evaluate whether it is well placed to take on the approaching avalanche of data. If not, they must act by working with training providers to provide accessible pathways for people to develop and exercise new data skills. Only then will we be able to reap the benefits of an analytically proficient healthcare industry.

Michael Houlihan is the CEO of Generation UK, a non-profit that transforms education to employment systems to prepare, place, and support people into life-changing careers that would otherwise be inaccessible.

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