The NHS has been urged to create more posts focused on the use of robotics and AI in healthcare as part of a broader effort to harness the potential of digital tech in the sector.
It is one of the recommendations to emerge from the newly published Topol Review, along with calls for patients to be involved in transformation projects, an expansion in research and development programmes, and a strong emphasis on the use of genomics data.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock followed up the publication with an announcement of plans for a digital healthcare fellowship programme, an increase in the number of NHS chief information officers and the creation of a career pathway for digital health specialists.
The review, Preparing the healthcare workforce to deliver the digital future, has been authored by Eric Topol (pictured), founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, and highlights three principles: that patients should be included as partners in the developments; the healthcare workforce needs expertise and guidance in their use; and the tech should be used to give staff more time to spend with patients.
It acknowledges the increasing interest in robotics and AI and recommends that the NHS should increase the number of posts with time dedicated to working with industry and academia on developing the technology.
Along with this are calls to ensure patients are involved in the design of software, that there should be an effort to educate healthcare professionals about the ethics of AI and data provenance, and for a national programme of industry exchange networks to make relevant expertise available to the NHS.
There is a strong emphasis on the role of patients, with recommendations that they are involved in co-creating digital medicine applications, and in transformation projects, especially identifying how the technology can improve their experience and staff productivity.
Related to this is that the NHS should expand research and development of digital medicine solutions, and invest in its existing workforce to develop specialist skills, including the assessment and commissioning of digital technologies.
However, each organisation should assign responsibility at board level for the safe and effective adoption of the technologies at scale, with a focus on clinical outcomes and staff engagement.
The review includes a strong emphasis on genomic data, saying that it can provide for more accurate diagnoses, but that staff need to use it in a way that safeguards patient confidentiality and inspires people’s confidence. With this in mind, it says there should be much more training in the field, with accredited courses related to key clinical specialities.
In addition, there should be a framework for genomic leadership across clinical specialities, and academic institutions should make genomics and data analytics more prominent in the undergraduate curricula for healthcare professionals.
There are also a series of recommendations on educational efforts, including that Health Education England should set up a new NHS Digital Education Programme to complement the Genomics Education Programme.
In a speech to mark the publication of the review, Hancock said the Government is launching the Topol programme for digital healthcare fellowships to give clinicians the skills to become chief information officers and chief clinical information officers.
This will support the policy of having someone in one of the two roles on the board of every local NHS organisation within the next three years.
“Getting the right leadership, people who understand tech, who have tech skills themselves, involved in management decisions is vital to getting the right mindset in place,” Hancock said. “It’s the first step to training up staff, building up digital capability in hospitals and GP surgeries.”
He also announced the development of a workplace implementation plan, to be led by Baroness Dido Harding, to built on recommendations in the review. This will include providing core training in genomic data literacy for all healthcare professionals, and creating a career pathway for a digitally enabled health system.
Hancock said in his speech: “For tech to succeed, for tech to fulfil its potential and deliver on its promise, then human beings are absolutely critical to making it happen. We need a culture change as much as we need a technological change.”
The review says that within 20 years, 90% of all jobs in the NHS will require some element of digital skills, and that all staff will need digital and genomics literacy.