Do skills gaps and the COVID brain drain threaten digital transformation?

COVID brain drain threaten digital transformation

With staff shortages and digital skill gaps being experienced across the spectrum of healthcare, from CROs and pharma to providers, the people-led sector is facing a personnel challenge that could threaten the potential of digital transformation.

The healthcare ecosystem may be the natural beneficiary of recent advances in data collection and analysis, but that’s no use without the staff to develop and implement solutions.

We know that digital transformation has the potential to rewrite the boundaries of the possible in medicine. In recent years, concepts including AI-led candidate selection, centralised clinical data monitoring, online sales, and virtual consultations have moved into primetime, all with the promise of making workflows more efficient.

But the goals of maintaining that momentum and reaping the rewards of 21st century processes rely on the sector attracting and retaining the staff – a proposition that’s becoming increasingly difficult thanks to a stubborn digital skills gap that is being compounded by the COVID brain drain.

Digital skills gap

In a report published last month, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) noted significant skills gaps in several areas.

These included computational and digital skills, the integration of clinical, industrial, and economic research, and genomic and phenotypic insights. People with the ability to integrate data across the patient pathway, in order to aid both research and treatment development, are, the report says, in particularly high demand.

“Many of the skills shortages are associated with the quantity of candidates rather than the quality. This suggests that the growing demand for candidates with specific skills is being outstripped by the supply.

“These top priorities clearly show the increasing role data and digital is playing within life sciences, R&D, and manufacturing,” says Richard Torbett, ABPI Chief Executive.

The publication, which updates figures released in 2018, makes clear that the situation has improved over the last few years. However, it also notes that desirable skill sets are evolving as quickly as the technology itself, and that the crossover between digital skills and scientific experience was “of particular concern”.

“Many of the skills shortages are associated with the quantity of candidates rather than the quality. This suggests that the growing demand for candidates with specific skills is being outstripped by the supply.

“There are candidates with the right skills, but there are simply not enough of them,” say the authors, adding that these skills are also being sought by competing sectors – data is, after all, everyone’s business now.

A similar picture is reflected in the United States, where CROs are reporting difficulties recruiting into some posts, with clinical research associates and clinical trial associates being in particularly short supply.

This is set to a backdrop of rapidly evolving data collection, management, and analysis processes. As the industry further transitions to models such as decentralised trials and risk-based monitoring, it seems reasonable to assume that sponsors and CROs will need an increasing volume of skills in areas such as data analytics and data engineering.

Healthcare systems

Of course, the data skills gap is in no way limited to pharma, as a report published by the Institute of Coding and the Coventry University at the end of last year showed.

Based on a series of interviews and literature reviews, it found poor digital skills among all levels of workers, from frontline healthcare professionals and senior management right through to the back -end officers who analyse collected data.

These gaps, the authors believe, represent a serious barrier to the successful implementation of digitalisation strategies.

“Digital technologies are recognised as a key component in healthcare transformation in the NHS Long Term Plan,” say the authors. And while the UK “has the potential to take the lead on healthtech”, the skills gap presents a serious challenge to that ambition.

“Research has found that management groups generally lack sufficient understanding on the value and application of digital technology for effectively guiding and driving digital transformation,” they say.

On the front-line, practitioners need to be equipped with knowledge and skills to use the data they are collecting, particularly as the healthcare sector “faces difficulties hiring staff with sufficient skills to fulfil the goals of data analytics”.

COVID brain drain

In addition to the data skills gap, the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded staff shortages in several ways.

In the pharma sector, there have been reports of mass resignations, as workers deal with the effects of burnout and changing working patterns.

This is also true of healthcare systems. In the UK, for example, the NHS went into the pandemic with 100,000 vacancies. While numbers were boosted by volunteers and returnees during 2020, the service is now haemorrhaging staff due in part to exhaustion, but also because large numbers are now reaching retirement age.

Across the EU, the health and social care sector now has around 2 million vacancies, and in the US, healthcare employment is down by about 378,000 jobs, or 2.3%, from February 2020 levels.

It is clear, then, that action is needed simply to maintain the foundations upon which digital transformation will sit.

Bridging the gap

Technology may be promising to transform healthcare, from R&D to market access, patient support and routine clinics, but it is people who will develop and implement these solutions.

As we move out of the acute COVID stage and towards something more akin to business as usual, the sector must keep this is mind – and remember that attracting and retaining the right people will become increasingly challenging as technological advances and cross-sector competition for talent continue to grow.

About the author

Amanda BarrellAmanda Barrell is a freelance health and medical education journalist, editor and copywriter. She has worked on projects for pharma, charities and agencies, and has written extensively for patients, HCPs and the public

10 February, 2022