News, Thought Leadership, Workforce

Digital innovation will be key to realising ambitions of the Workforce Plan – Richard Stubbs


Responding to the NHS Workforce Plan, CEO of the Yorkshire & Humber AHSN, Richard Stubbs, argues that plan’s success will depend on the adoption of digital innovation and the creation of a digitally-capable workforce.

Workforce pressures remain one of the greatest challenges facing the health and care system, with ever-increasing and diversifying demands of the population driving the need for greater system capacity. It is implausible to imagine that we will continue to expand our workforce to meet future demand in a sustainable way. As well as supporting and championing our workforce, we need to also explore new ways of working by unlocking the power of digital, introducing new models for delivering services which will enable our staff to spend more time on activities that directly benefit patient care.

These ambitions are reinforced by the recently published NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, majoring on training and retaining our healthcare workforce, alongside the need to reform our ways of working and workforce training offer.

Digital technology, data, AI, and robotics offer numerous opportunities to address system capacity challenges and enable patients to receive timely, high-quality care. For example, the PinPoint blood test optimises NHS urgent cancer referral pathways so patients in greatest need are seen first, whereas the Digibete online platform supports better management of young people with diabetes and helps prevent unplanned hospital admissions.

These innovations will never replace care delivered by people and the specialist skills of our health and care workforce, nor is it an alternative to safe levels of staffing. Instead, it should be an integral part of a modern health and care system’s approach to coping with increasing demand. However, as around 22 per cent of the UK population lack basic digital skills, digital technology needs to be introduced in a way which doesn’t exacerbate existing inequalities. As the Digital Divide report I supported in conjunction with Public Policy Projects recommended, we need to avoid a ‘digital-by-default’ approach, and instead, ensure that adoption of digital technology is sensitive to the needs and challenges of different population groups.

As the Long Term Workforce Plan acknowledges, adoption of digital technology needs to take place alongside digital skills training for the workforce, enabling them to continue providing high quality care aided by digital technology. The linkages between digital technology and health inequalities should also be further highlighted within the workforce, helping mitigate inequalities caused by future introduction of ‘digital by default’ services.

“ICSs’ intrinsic knowledge of the populations they serve will also help to ensure that digitally enabled services don’t exacerbate existing health inequalities.”

ICSs have a critical role in delivering the Long Term Workforce Plan and mitigating current workforce challenges by bringing together workforce, clinical, and service planning and implementing digital solutions which unlock system capacity and deliver patient and system benefits. ICSs’ intrinsic knowledge of the populations they serve will also help to ensure that digitally enabled services don’t exacerbate existing health inequalities. The fifteen Academic Health Science Networks also have a role to play in supporting ICSs to match local need with evidence-backed innovations and supporting equitable adoption and spread of innovation across services.

We can only fundamentally address our current workforce challenges by reimagining the way we deliver health and care. Digital and tech transformation has been the journey for almost all non-health sectors over the last few decades. ICSs and AHSNs will be fundamental in driving this transformation, ensuring digital technology is adopted in a way which supports our workforce, meets local demand and reduces inequalities in access to services.

Richard Stubbs is CEO of the Yorkshire & Humber AHSN, an organisation that connects NHS and academic organisations, local authorities, the third sector and industry to facilitate change across health and social care economies. Prior to becoming CEO, Richard was AHSN’s Commercial Director.