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Topol review highlights staff training need for digital revolution

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A landmark report has highlighted how the true potential of technology to revolutionise the NHS will only be realised though investment in staff training.

The independent Topol Review, published today, outlines how digital interventions such as genomics, artificial intelligence and robotics can improve patient care.

“Individuals need to see digital healthcare technology solutions in the context of their own clinical practic”

Topol report

But the authors warn that leaders must act now to ensure the workforce is equipped with the skills and knowledge to make the vision a reality. They noted that within 20 years times, 90% of all jobs in the NHS will require some element of digital ability.

All NHS organisation should invest in their existing workforce to get them up to speed on technological advancements, urged the authors, adding that continuous professional development would be “important to deliver change”.

They recommend that Health Education England establishes a new “NHS digital education programme” to help achieve this.

“Resistance to change and scepticism about technology are well-recognised barriers to progress – both can be overcome by a motivated and enthused workforce,” the report said.

“For sustained and effective adoption, individuals need to see digital healthcare technology solutions in the context of their own clinical practice and of quality improvements in care,” it said.

“What the Topol Review shows us is how technological advancements can improve care”

Ian Cumming

The report also recommends that education providers ensure genomics, data analytics and artificial intelligence are prominent in undergraduate courses for healthcare professionals.

The Topol Review, led by the California based cardiologist, geneticist, and digital medicine expert Dr Eric Topol, was commissioned by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt and produced by HEE.

The report assures that technologies will “not replace health professionals, but will enhance them”, and give them more time to care for patients. But it shines a light on how the roles and responsibilities of health professionals will potentially be altered by technology.

For example, it reveals how plans are in place to introduce a “mental health triage bot” into the care pathway to assess people wanting support.

The bot, which has been created, uses “natural language processing” to analyses text and voice inputs from the patient for “emotion and suicidal ideation”.

The report said this technology will save time for frontline primary care and community mental health teams in the triage process.

“The strategy published today will be little more than warm words unless workforce shortages are addressed”

Adam Steventon

However, it added that clinicians will need need training to help them determine which patients the technology is appropriate for and to gauge the accuracy of the software.

Dr Topol said over the next 20 years more and more people would have their genomes sequenced; patients would generate and interpret much more of their own health data at home; and the speed, accuracy and scalability of medical data interpretation from artificial intelligence would grow.

“These developments will change patients’ lives, change how clinicians work and change how healthcare services are delivered,” he added. “This is happening now and the NHS is ideally placed to take it further, faster and wider if we act to give our staff the skills and knowledge they need to make them the norm across the NHS.

“I believe, this revolution has the potential, if grasped, to greatly strengthen patient-doctor relationships, release more professional time to care more, and reduce the burnout we can see in a significant proportion of clinicians today.”

Professor Ian Cumming, chief executive of HEE, said the organisation would work to bring the report’s recommendations a reality through the workforce implementation plan, which will set out of the staff elements of the NHS Long Term will be delivered.

“The relationship between the clinical professional and the person they are helping is the core of our NHS and that will never change,” he added. “What the Topol Review shows us is how technological advancements can improve the care and treatment hard working NHS staff are able to give if we provide these staff with the support, education and training they need now.”

However, reacting to the report, Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation think-tank, warned that the ambitions could not be achieved without addressing the current staffing challenges.

Health Education England

Ian Cumming

Ian Cumming

“The NHS is overstretched and has a shortfall of 100,000 staff,” he said. “Unless the government and NHS leaders take radical action and prioritise the recruitment of new staff and the development of the existing workforce, the NHS will struggle to sustain current services, let alone take advantage of the benefits new technology can bring.”

“Technology has the potential to improve care and drive efficiency in the NHS – by enabling patients to manage their own care, enabling speedier accurate diagnoses and reducing waiting times,” said Mr Steventon.

“But the strategy published today will be little more than warm words unless workforce shortages are addressed and there is much needed investment in training,” he added. 

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, which is part of the NHS Confederation, said: “Technology can have a transformative effect on our health service, making it better for patients all over the country as this welcome report makes clear.

“Clearly there is a lot of work ahead for employers to work with our teams and our patients to design, implement and embed new technologies to support the delivery of care to our communities,” he said.

“The deployment of technology will of course require significant resource and investment and we would repeat that this needs to be properly funded by government and not left to already stretched individual NHS trusts to dig even deeper to fund,” he added. 

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