More needs to be done to close the digital skills gap amongst NHS staff, and the lack of digital know-how could be hampering efforts to transform healthcare, new research has revealed.

The research project, led by Coventry University, set out to examine the importance of technological change to combat the challenges facing the healthcare sector. It carried out a series of interviews and literature reviews and in doing so identified specific gaps in knowledge. These included: lack of sufficient skills and knowledge in leading digital transformation in the NHS; adapting to state-of-the-art technologies; data analytics; and educating others.

Researchers believe that the skills gap could be a barrier to the successful implementation of strategies to digitise healthcare.

Workers lack basic IT skills

Poor digital skills were revealed across all levels, from frontline healthcare workers and senior management through to support officers working at the back end to analyse collected data.

Many interviewees felt that there is a large number of NHS workers who do not possess basic digital skills. As one person interviewed revealed: “We’re trying to put in digital systems. I think a lot of people work on the assumption that everybody can actually use a computer with competence, and that’s certainly not the case.”

This lack of knowledge is hampering the efforts being made to drive healthcare forwards digitally, but it’s certainly not the only barrier. The research also focused on a ‘familiarity gap’ where staff need to feel comfortable around new technologies.

The best environment for addressing this is an open innovation model where news ideas can be acted upon, and a supportive culture allowing workers to experiment. As one interviewee said: “It’s not so much the skills, it’s more the familiarity of using state-of-the-art technology.”

Resisting change still an issue

One of the challenges related to the continuing skills gap was identified as a resistance to adopting digital health technology.

“Generally, the resistance has already led to delays in adopting up-to-date technologies and substantially made the process more costly and less efficient,” the report states.

It also noted that age was often a factor, with younger generations being more willing to adopt new technologies.

Addressing the skills gap

Recognising the problem is NHS-wide, with the adding: “Front-line healthcare practitioners need to become more confident in recommending and using digital technologies; senior management needs to acquire a wider and deeper understanding on what digital transformation means for effectively guiding the process”.

To help with this vision to upskill workers, the research made recommendations for five training programmes to boost NHS workers’ digital skills:

  1. Training for senior managers to deliver a level of understanding on the importance and urgency of digital transformation with enough information so that they can make strategic decisions to support this.
  2. Training for front-line health practitioners to boost confidence, familiarity and skills with digital technologies.
  3. Training to combat security concerns and deliver a basic knowledge of data analysis.
  4. Training on communication skills to address concerns surrounding communication efficiency between front-line and back-end staff.
  5. Training focused on improving data analytical skills within healthcare.

Dr Michael Loizou, assistant professor at the Centre for Postdigital Cultures of Coventry University and lead author of the report, said: “We hope the report is helpful for practitioners and training providers and helps to highlight the importance of having the skills to use digital technology.

“The recommendations will hopefully form an important part of improving digital skills and reducing the skills gap in healthcare settings. This will help healthcare professionals working in often already demanding and stressful jobs.”

One higher education setting that is working to redress the digital skills gap is University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) where medical students have access to a clinical simulation training programme to deepen their knowledge of electronic patient records.