April 13. 2024. 6:13

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Healthcare professionals face the test of catching up with digitalisation

As 2023 is the European year of skills, one question inevitably springs to mind: Is the healthcare sector ready to upskill and unlock the advancements in digital technologies?

Last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced in her State of the Union speech that 2023 will be the European Year of Skills with the objective of ‘a Europe fit for the digital age’.

At the moment though, Europe does not seem ‘digitally fit’. The Digital Economy and Society Index shows that four out of 10 adults, and every third person who works in Europe, lacks basic digital skills.

In the meantime, the healthcare sector is “fast changing landscape of healthcare, due to digitalisation and the introduction of new technologies,” Antanas Montvila, vice president of the European Junior Doctors Association (EJD), told EURACTIV.

The importance of digital skills is growing as healthcare is being reshaped with telemedicine, which has been boosted during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital medical records, and artificial intelligence-enabled medical devices and diagnostics.

Already in 2016, a report from the European Health Parliament – a platform for young health professionals in Brussels – said digital technology is an inevitable part of the future of European healthcare and called for upskilling healthcare workers.

“You can have the most technologically advanced device in the world, but if you don’t know how to operate it, it will be as useful as a jumbo-jet without a pilot,” the report said.

Now, seven years later, the issue of the lack of digital health skills remains, it was highlighted in a recent policy paper by the health stakeholder platform ‘All policies for healthy Europe’.

“The digitalisation of the care pathway and, more broadly, the digital transformation of the health and care sector […] is hampered by the general lack of digital skills among professionals working in the health and care sector and among patients, carers and families,” the paper stressed.

EU lawmakers acknowledge the issue, especially those with a medical background, such as Sara Cerdas, a socialist Portuguese MEP, who said that through her studies, she did not get “even one-hour training on how to use different systems [of medical records]”.

“I’m a millennial, […] I have lived through digitalisation, not only in healthcare, but there was a significant skill gap among my colleagues, my older colleagues, and this truly hindered their work on what they could contribute to their patients and it led to more burden in their workday,” she said in a recent webinar.

This, she added, puts a burden on junior doctors “who could have a bit more skills in the digital world to help them”.

Diagnostics and treatments face the test of ‘medical deserts’

The risk of unmet medical needs increases as certain medical examinations and treatments can be accessed only in the biggest hospitals, resulting in late diagnosis and worsening chronic conditions for those living in rural and remote areas across Europe.

Upskilling from day one

The way forward, according to EJD’s Montvila, is better training on digital skills and technology for medical staff that has to start from undergraduate studies.

“From day one in medical school, students should understand how the healthcare landscape is changing, understand how data, machine learning, AI and all these other big technologies can influence their work in the future,” Montvila stressed.

He added that the training has to go beyond teaching how to use electronic health records and should include patients’ data protection, as well as working with medical devices and apps that have an impact on medical care.

Training to ensure in-demand digital skills which allow using the latest innovations is as important for those already in the workforce. Due to the ageing European healthcare workforce, the current medical staff will potentially be working longer.

“We need to make sure that there are all the procedures in place, that we equip our doctors [with the skills] for the practice of today,” Montvila stressed. Now, according to him, for the already overworked medical professionals, upskilling remains a ‘privilege’.

According to Cerdas, as digitalisation continues to reshape the healthcare systems, there must be an “opportunity to upgrade [healthcare workforce] competencies and skills in order to be better prepared on all these different digital tools that are aimed to simplify and ease their work”.

The Portuguese MEP is looking at an EU-wide approach for sharing the best practices, as well as lifelong training.

The need for this is recognised in a WHO/Europe report published last September, which stressed the ageing healthcare workforce that “could spell disaster,” as it is harder to replace workers when they retire.

It came with a 10-step action plan that includes strengthening professional development with new knowledge and competencies as well as expanding the use of digital tools.

The report highlighted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, some countries such as Germany accelerated the integration of digital competencies in continuing professional development programmes.

In 2021, France put in place a national plan for improving the acceleration of digital health.

According to Isabelle Zablit-Schmitz, eHealth Europe and International Director for the French Ministry of Health, part of this plan is devoted to upskilling digital health workforce until 2025, for which €81 million was allocated.

While France’s “Digital Health” acceleration strategy can count on €718 million, upskilling is still “a huge challenge,” Zablit-Schmitz said.

Furthermore, not all countries are investing as much and the level of digital skills in a whole population varies significantly across the bloc, from less than 30% in Romania to nearly 80% in Scandinavian countries, according to Eurostat data.

Brain drain of health workforce challenges EU health systems

Health experts have called for more data and EU-wide planning to address ‘brain drain’ in the healthcare labour market as workers emigrate between member states.

A European approach is needed

The disparities are something that the platform ‘All policies for healthy Europe’ picked up in their paper, pointing to “an absence of a clear European strategy for digital health skills and digital health literacy”.

Looking at the EU’s action, within the EU4Health programme, countries can benefit from continuing professional development programmes that focus on digital skills.

Dirk van den Steenin from the European Commission’s health department (DG SANTE) also mentioned the pact for skills announced in 2020 to encourage the development of skills by the sector.

“Of course, health and care in the broadest sense are also one of those sectors that are in the picture,” he said.

In 2021 an Erasmus+ call for a blueprint for a digital skills strategy in the healthcare sector, aimed at advancing the upskilling of digital skills, was won by the European Health Management Association.

Finally, as part of the year of skills, the European Commission has launched or plans to launch many initiatives related to digital skills. But the initiative All Policies for a Healthy Europe warned that the “European Commission still lacks a clear strategy for digital health skills”.