It’s time we prioritise digital literacy in healthcare

The digital skills gap in healthcare widened because hospitals failed to prioritise digital literacy in the past decade, but this can still be fixed.

The digital skills gap in healthcare has been an issue since a decade ago. But it was only during the pandemic, when hospitals increasingly adopted digitalisation, that it has been really bared as a major problem.

As a non-tech industry, healthcare has been trying to keep up with the technological transformation, hence, hospitals’ IT needs are upwelling. And this is something that should not be taken lightly, as the industry is anticipated to grow even bigger in the next decade.

Babu Thomas, CHRO, Shalby Hospitals

Hospital Insights Asia sits down with Mr Babu Thomas, Chief Human Resource Officer at Shalby Multispecialty Hospitals who has 28 years of experience in human resources leadership, to better understand the circumstances that make the digital skills gap in healthcare challenging to close and the possible actions to tackle this gap.

Not a priority

Among other industries, healthcare has the widest IT skills gap. Thomas explains that this is a “legacy of the sector.” More often than not, hospitals prioritise programs related to the provision of “unparalleled clinical service rather than digitalisation.” Hospital leaders, therefore, focus more on building capacity and extending the scope of service deliveries but not really investing in digital transformation.

While this has its warrant since healthcare is indeed about providing excellent patient care, we often don’t realise that digitalisation complements this goal. To illustrate, digitalisation addresses the growing difficulty of tracking, storing, and analyzing data, thereby, improving productivity and streamlining operations.

Resistance to digital

Historically, hospitals have not really been too inclined about hiring and training digital professionals, especially in the past when the advantages of technology weren’t established yet. But now that hospital management tries to train staff to handle digital, resistance from doctors is the main problem.

This reservation, according to Thomas, is usually seen in clinical professionals or specialists who have 15 or 20 years of experience. Understandably, people can be uncomfortable changing their routine and navigating unfamiliar waters.

However, hospital leaders still hesitate to name “digital illiteracy” as the new challenge they face in today’s information age where our world revolves around all things coupled with ‘digital’ or ‘innovation’ or ‘data’. In fact, the Data Literacy Index rated healthcare the “worst-performing sector in terms of data literacy of staff”. Despite the obvious benefits of SAP, ORACLE, and other ERP applications, we still see healthcare professionals rejecting the use of such software, says Thomas. And for technology to really achieve its full potential, hospital staff should be equipped with basic digital skills.

To close the gap

Digital skills, typically, are not included in medical training; hence, it is understandable that nurses and doctors do not have an in-depth understanding of using technology or are not digitally literate. What hospitals can do, Thomas suggests, is to invest in digitalisation and in digital training and development.

Training current staff is recommended rather than hiring new ones. For one, it is difficult to get employees with a suitable skill set, one who’s knowledgeable in healthcare and who has expertise in digital. “It is rather an ideal wish and it hardly ever happens,” says Thomas, “so it is much better to train your existing staff or if you hire new staff, make sure they are highly trainable.”

Younger professionals are often more open in improving their digital literacy, Thomas observes. Hospitals can start with these young clinicians, along with those who are willing to learn. When those who resist the training finally realise the benefits of learning new digital skills, everything will fall into place.

Another solution is acquiring user-friendly technologies. Specifically, this addresses the resistance from senior clinical professionals to acquire IT skills. With easy-to-use technologies come easy adoption from the users, and this allows for more staff on-board digital transformation programs.

“I don’t think we can exempt anyone from this today,” highlights Thomas. Everyone should learn digital skills, from the basic system operation skills to data analytical skills and even social media skills. What will differ is the degree and scope of learning, which will depend on their roles.

With today’s digitalised world, Thomas believes each employee plays the role of a brand ambassador of the hospital. No one can give the hospital positive visibility than digitally literate employees. Unparalleled clinical services will have a new layer to it as well, as hospitals can serve what the world requires.