(This article has been translated into French.)

The rallying cry for more “beds and buildings” in Canada’s health care system is understandable. Hospitals are overcrowded. Wait times for priority procedures are too long. An aging population will only add to these strains.

But an equally urgent need in our health care system is for more people: people trained to fill labour shortages, address systemic inefficiencies and take full advantage of the technological disruption transforming our system. As a recent report from RBC notes, meeting this need will be possible only if our educators, employers and policy-makers adopt an ambitious skills agenda.

Addressing labour shortages

Left unchecked, the demand for health care services will continue to exceed the supply of caregivers who can deliver them. Even the most optimistic 2025 projections see a gap of 20,000 workers for a sector that continues to outpace the overall economy in job creation.

Policy-makers need to consider novel approaches to filling the gap.  The UK offers one example. Postal workers check up on senior citizens living on their routes to gather information about their health and well-being. These insights – garnered from a set of standard questions – are shared with local health authorities to determine if residents suffer from isolation and or its ill effects. France has adopted a similar approach to combat this unique challenge facing millions of elderly people.

A similar approach could be adopted in Canada. A courier driver who delivers packages to homes could train to be a paramedic who delivers patients to hospitals.

To be sure, the transition between these two careers is not as easy as changing lanes on an open highway. Addressing the labour shortage in our health care system will require educators and employers to work together in new ways to recruit and retrain individuals with no background in health care.

Equally challenging, a career in health care is a unique calling, which blends expert knowledge with empathetic qualities. Not everyone is cut out to be, for instance, a paramedic. That’s certainly not lost on those who consume and pay for our health care system. To be blunt, it would take a leap of faith for many Canadians, especially in a time of need, to place their trust in caregivers whose expertise and experiences were developed and derived in unrelated sectors.

But the reality is that this kind of career transition is already playing out in labour markets in Canada and around the world.  Indeed, in an age of disruption and displacement, it will be a dominant trend shaping the future of work.

Applying research methodology developed by RBC to better understand how young Canadians can prepare for the future, we have found that many of the one million workers at high risk of losing their jobs to automation possess skills that are transferable to the health care sector.

Let’s return to the courier driver. It’s a job that could very well be automated, as driverless vehicles and drone delivery become a reality. Yet many of the skills these drivers possess — such as the ability to operate and control equipment, manage time effectively, listen actively and be service oriented — are the same ones required for paramedics, where the demand for services will equate to 4,000 new openings in the next five years.

Improving efficiencies

Technological advancements provide new and more efficient ways to work, but a misallocation of skills means we are not realizing their full benefit. Far too many doctors still share vital medical information via faxes. It’s not a good use of their time or our public money. Research also suggests these kind of administrative burdens are a prime source of burnout for medical practitioners.

What’s more, why must nurses in hospital settings distribute routine medication to patients when an automatic dispenser and monitor could fulfill these kind of transactional duties? Surely nurses could find better and more meaningful ways to enhance patient care.

The growing demand for home care is also placing a strain on our system. In part, that’s because the personal support workers (PSWs) who are often in home settings are not empowered to deliver basic services. But with proper training they could act as the “hands, eyes and ears” of a trained nurse and receive specific direction via a mobile device to improve home care services. This would enable PSWs to perform more meaningful tasks, while also improving efficiencies.

Adapting to technological innovation

Caregivers must also develop new sets of skills demanded by technological advancements. For instance, as health care relies increasingly on data, more workers will need the ability to interact with and analyze data, not just collect it. Physicians will require a working knowledge of the machine learning models being developed to help them make better diagnoses. Nurses, for whom bedside documentation is already a big part of the job, will need to learn more about big data.

Human skills will also remain paramount. Intuition and empathy, compassion and comfort are defining characteristics of quality health care. We are now seeing some schools incorporating soft skills training into the curriculum and reinforcing the need for problem-solving, resiliency and especially adaptability. The Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, for instance, is moving away from a focus on the perfect GPA and looking at medical school candidates’ social and interpersonal skills.

Toward an ambitious skills agenda

The health care sector doesn’t need to tackle an ambitious skills agenda on its own. It can learn from other sectors in the throes of a skills revolution and share its own discoveries. That’s already under way among the many health care educators adapting courses from other disciplines. And to solve inefficiencies, for instance, the sector could replicate partnerships that other industries such as financial services employ with innovation labs.

Yet the biggest challenge will be finding ways to help workers from other sectors transition into health care. Retraining and certification would be required — no easy feat for those who need to make the transition in mid-career. Workers may need multiple years of formal education to earn the appropriate credentials. This requires time and money — as well as a supportive environment — to ensure affected workers can make the pivot to the health care profession.

To help bridge any skills gap and reduce some of the current barriers, educators, employers and policy-makers will need to recognize the transferability of skills and provide opportunities for people to explore new career paths. The creation and expansion of second-career bridge programs to attract professionals into health care without requiring years of additional schooling (and costs) would be a good step forward.

Along similar lines, the health care sector should consider creating more work-integrated learning opportunities for workers in non-health disciplines. In addition to providing industry-specific work experience, such initiatives help to inject new ideas into the sector.

Funding solutions to preserve the current health care model will not serve our interests over the longer term. A sustainable system — one that can adapt to both the demographics and the disruptive forces shaping the world we live in — requires us to identify and develop new streams of health care practitioners, rethink and rewire the way we deliver care and upskill our workers to take full advantage of medical innovations entering the system. This skills agenda will need the full participation of educators, employers and policy-makers. If properly designed, it will sustain high-quality care in Canada for generations to come.

Photo: Shutterstock/By Rob Marmion

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