Health education bosses are piloting a new two-year programme at university technical colleges to help tackle a shortfall of 30,000 NHS employees skilled in “digital health”.
Health Education England has teamed up with the Baker Dearing Trust – the body which supports UTCs – for a two-year trial of a digital health pathway for students aged 14 to 19 at 10 UTCs.
Kate Ambrosi, director of innovation and learning at the Baker Dearing Trust, said the plan is to “improve the digital skills of health specialists,” and “also improve the awareness of the amazing health careers for our digital specialist young people”.
Ambrosi added: “We are focused at the moment on improving the digital skills of our health students, the health knowledge and awareness of careers for digital students, and also forming this middle way which combines the two.”
The pathway is available to all students on existing health and digital courses at levels 2 and 3 at the participating UTCs, according to HEE. Crucially, the project ties up with NHS trusts so that students can do projects and link up with industry early on in the process.
For example, UTC Sheffield Olympic Park Legacy, which has been leading on the pilot, has partnered with Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, as well as Sheffield Hallam University’s advanced wellbeing research centre, to provide real-world experience and progression opportunities.
Among the skills students are developing are areas such as data security or developing apps for helping monitor health. But other skills areas will also eventually be needed.
Di Bullman, future workforce workstream lead at HEE, said: “We are going to need more people in terms of data and analytics, and certainly in some of the new technologies, such as the use of AI, simulation and virtual reality. We also know that we need to generally upskill the whole of the workforce.”
HEE estimates indicate there will be a shortfall of 30,000 skilled digital and data health professionals by 2030.
It is just one part of the NHS workforce crisis, highlighted in a July report by the government’s health and social care committee, which found that England was short of 12,000 hospital doctors and around 50,000 nurses.
Henrietta Mbeah-Bankas, head of blended and digital learning and development lead at HEE, said: “There are so many other young people that haven’t got any idea what other careers are in the NHS – it might be doctor, nurse and midwife as a lot of young people are concerned. So digital doesn’t come into it.
“If you say the word digital, every young person thinks of Meta, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft – it is those names that have become synonymously with digital, but what we are trying to say is ‘did you know there are over 30 digital careers you can do within the NHS?’”
Project bosses also said more young learners have an awareness of ethical employment, and “wanting to be a part of the solution” to NHS staff shortages.
She explained that this new pathway aimed to marry digital skills and health skills to a greater degree than existing provision, and while recognising that some university courses did do so, it was not widespread enough. She added: “There is some work to do to bring things together a bit more.”
Data will be analysed across the two-year pilot and inform future provision, and if it works, expansion into further education colleges, sixth forms and secondary schools hasn’t been ruled out.
But UTCs, according to Mbeah-Bankas, leant themselves to the course because they could catch learners earlier than most post-16 provision.
She added: “What’s also very useful with the way UTCs are set up is they are already training young people for work, apprenticeships, and higher education, so the pathways are there. We have got the added value they are already linked to industry.
“That is not something that is widespread with general secondary schools, so there is an element of all of this helping us to develop a proof of concept, to say that if we are to support young people to think about health and digital careers in the NHS, we have to start early.”
If the model works, it could also expand into other areas of the NHS where less-obvious skills gaps remain.
Ambrosi said: “We have had a little movement into health engineering. We find young people love F1, they love BMW and Jaguar Land Rover, they know a lot about Rolls Royce and the Royal Navy, but do they know there are engineering careers in the NHS? Not so much. So really for us it is to say to young people, look at all these amazing careers available, and so broaden their horizons.”