December 9, 2023
Data skills are vital for the healthcare industry – UKTN

Complex and ever-increasing volumes of data are transforming all industries. The healthcare sector is a prime example – technology and data are completely changing the way care is planned, administered, and monitored, not to mention the research of new treatments and diagnosis methods. The potential improvement in patient outcomes and in cost-effectiveness to unlock further improvements in healthcare is huge.

However, will the system be able to take advantage of the opportunity? The data revolution coincides with a challenging time for the healthcare industry in the UK. The immense strain Covid-19 has placed on private and public healthcare organisations has been followed by prolonged periods of staff shortages and under-investment in the system.

The question, then, is how can the system use data to shape a more viable, efficient future for healthcare, while also bettering the care delivered? One immediate factor that must be addressed is how to address the skills gap in data to ensure the healthcare system has the right people and skills to reach the right answer.

As found across all areas of the UK ­workforce – and, indeed, globally – there is a problem finding talent with sufficient skills to keep up with our data-driven future. Vacancies for roles that require an analytical skillset are increasingly difficult to fill, with the data skills gap functioning within the wider digital skills gap. It’s a significant problem that is worsening as businesses aim to use new technologies to their advantage, but are unable to find the people with sufficient skillsets to harness it.

A 2021 report from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) revealed the extent of the problem for UK businesses. A survey of 1,045 businesses found that nearly half (48%) were recruiting for data roles, and a similar number were struggling to find candidates to fill the role. The study estimates that there are currently around 250,000 jobs that require hard data skills.

The shortages are concerning, particularly when we consider the exciting opportunities data skills present. The NHS suggested in a 2019 report that within 20 years, 90% of all jobs in the organisation will require some element of digitals skills, with staff needed to be able 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. 

This article is part of a paid partnership with the West Midlands Combined Authority