Implementing digital health technologies requires fundamental skills that can only be acquired through education, training, and practical experience. This article by Mika Uitto and Sami Perälä from Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences – SeAMK, project partners of the EU Project CONNECTINGHEALTH, reflect on the unique opportunity of universities and colleges in equipping their students with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in the field of digital health.
SeAMK is involved in developing digital healthcare in Europe in the CONNECTINGHEALTH project. CONNECTINGHEALTH is a two-year Horizon EU-funded project, with the aim of promoting networking and collaboration between digital healthcare ecosystems in Europe to strengthen the future of digital health.
As part of the project activities, we – Mika Uitto and Sami Perälä (SeAMK) – hosted a workshop on “Digital Skills and Workforce” with Karolina Mackiewicz and Robyn Freiheit from ECHAlliance in January 2023. The goal of this workshop was to identify barriers, enablers, and uncertainties related to digital health skills of the workforce and to create future scenarios on this topic for the year 2030. Stakeholders and digital health experts from across Europe participated in this workshop, leading to interesting discussions and visions for the future. One particular topic that came up in the workshops and was highlighted by the participants was the importance of digital health education for the future healthcare workforce. In this brief article, we will reflect on the findings from the workshop from our perspective as experts from a university of applied sciences.
Overcoming the barriers of digital health education
In the workshop, participants agreed that digital health related education is essential to help healthcare professionals understand the benefits and potential of digital health, effectively use digital technologies in their practice, and continue their professional development.
However, the participants identified the challenge of outdated curricula and teaching methods as significant current education related barriers to developing the future workforce. It was noted that technology is currently evolving quicker than people may be able to keep up to, raising concerns about the potential for growing digital health skill gaps. Therefore, for digital health education to enable skill development, it was concluded that the curricula must provide up-to-date information and skills that match the current competence needs in the field. This would also require updating the curricula on a consistent basis in the future as technologies progress and new solutions are adopted.
The future of digital health education
Regarding the future of digital health related education, the participants in the workshop were asked to transform their best ideas into negative and positive scenarios for digital health in 2030. A total of four scenarios (2 positive and 2 negative) were formed by two groups. One positive future scenario, that specially highlighted the importance of education, was the following:
“In 2030, digital health training has been integrated into the education system. As a result, the new health professionals are already skilled when they enter the workforce, and the infrastructure is in place to accommodate this. Digitalization has progressed to the point where people are not talking about digital health skills anymore – just health skills – since digital aspects have already been built in and integrated to health promotion and care throughout. This has been allowed by countries in the EU being more coherent and harmonized in digital skills, data, and cancelling of restrictive legislation.
Supporting this movement, the health markets have adapted and designed their solutions well to reflect the needs of the patients and workers. They also integrate smoothly into the systems and workflows, so that the digital health solutions don’t require extensive training. In addition, sufficient and consistent health literacy levels have been achieved by populations and the efficacy of the implemented technologies has been proven.”
This scenario painted a picture of a future, in which we wouldn’t talk about digital health skills at all, just health skills, since digital aspects would be integrated to health concepts throughout as a default. Additionally, the education system was visioned to be able to provide the upcoming professionals with all the necessary competences to succeed in the new era of health care. In addition to having well designed curricula, this would naturally also require, that the educators invest in the required technologies or seek other options to enable the hands-on teaching of the skills.
The scenario also emphasized the importance of accessible and easy to use technologies, which can be seen as an essential aspect of the discussion on requirement of digital competences, because the level of digital skills needed by the health care professionals is always related to the ease of use of the technologies. This means that promoting digital health skills alone is not enough. It is equally important to promote the design of intuitive and user-friendly technologies for narrowing the digital divide.
Turning the future vision into reality – role of digital health education
The effective use and implementation of digital health technologies in healthcare require essential digital health skills that cannot be obtained through divine intervention. Instead, improving these skills require education, training, and practical experience. In this task, universities and colleges have a great role and opportunity. With the increasing importance of digital health in modern healthcare, they have the unique opportunity to equip their students – the workforce of the future – with the necessary skills and knowledge to thrive. In order to succeed in this mission, they need sufficient funding for technology investments, competent and motivated staff, co-operation with public and private healthcare organizations and well-designed curricula that considers digital health competences in modern healthcare.
It could even be useful for universities and colleges to build a common curriculum for digital health education, taking into account best practices and technologies used in current and future healthcare. This curriculum should be updated on a consistent basis. Various pilot projects and good practices, as well as international collaborative projects would help building the foundation and framework for a common ground. However, a challenge that hinders this collaboration is the asymmetry of various technologies, as organizations, countries, and regions may have very differing opportunities and approaches.
In addition to providing education and training, colleges and universities can also contribute to the advancement of digital health through research, development and innovation (RDi). RDi projects – such as CONNECTINGHEALTH – are extremely important for these institutions because they promote the emergence of new innovations and exchange of good practices, encourage interdisciplinary and international collaboration, creates new contacts and increases competences of the individuals and organizations involved. Summing up, colleges and universities have the opportunity and mission to bridge the gap between technology and healthcare and narrow the digital divide with digital health education and RDi-projects, preparing the next generation of healthcare professionals to leverage the great potential of digital health.
Research & development specialist
Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences, SeAMK
Sami Perälä, M.H.Sc
Development manager – Wellbeing technologies
Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences, SeAMK