The Health and Social Care Committee, a cross-party group that examines and reports on the work of the Department of Health and Social Care and associated public bodies, has just published its eighth report as a result of an inquiry into digital transformation in the NHS.

The report highlights a number of barriers to digital transformation currently facing the NHS, including the prevalence of extremely outdated legacy IT systems, attracting skilled digital specialists to the healthcare workforce, and involving NHS staff in digital initiatives.

When it comes to attracting skilled digital specialists to the workforce, the report notes that the NHS struggles to compete with the private sector, where “digital specialists can often command better remuneration” alongside other employment benefits. NHS Providers, the membership organisation for NHS hospital, mental health, community and ambulance services, summarises the skills challenge facing the NHS:

“Digital transformation [ … ] requires the recruitment of staff roles with digital skillsets, including product managers, delivery managers, user experience researchers and service designers. Many trusts find it difficult to compete with private sector employers who can offer candidates competitive salaries, clear career progression opportunities and digitally enabled work environments.”

Ensuring that the wider health service takes an active and involved role in digital transformation also requires upskilling employees to engage with new technology and with transformation programmes. The report recommends that the Department of Health and Social Care “work with NHS England and Skills for Care to design training in which digital skills are embedded throughout”. It emphasises that digital needs to be “understood as a thread that runs throughout healthcare, not as a specialist skill set that is only relevant to some staff and occupations”.

The challenge facing the NHS around digital skills is therefore two-pronged: a need to attract skilled specialists to fill Data, Digital and Technology (DDaT) roles that exist within the organisation, but also a need to establish a wider digital competence outside of specialist roles, in order to ensure that technology can be used to its full potential across the health service.

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At the same time as the Health and Social Care Committee published its digital transformation report, NHS England published the Long Term Workforce Plan: an extensive document laying out how the NHS will train and upskill its workforce over the coming years.

While the digital transformation report and the Workforce Plan’s simultaneous publication dates meant the two documents were unable to directly inform each other, the Workforce Plan acknowledges the need to “upskill our workforce to maximise the opportunities from technological and digital innovations, and embed new and different ways of working”, and added that successfully harnessing advances in technology will “necessitate the growth of specialist digital, technology and genomics roles” and require staff to work in fundamentally different ways.

The NHS has also pledged to roll out a digital skills assessment tool that addresses digital literacy needs across the workforce by the end of 2023/24. Other initiatives including the Digital Health Leadership Programme, Topol Digital Fellowships, and the Fast Futures programme exist to help health and social care professionals within the NHS drive digital transformation and change, become equipped with new skills and knowledge, and to prepare new graduates to fill data and digital vacancies within the NHS.

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