• A significant change in the Australian healthcare workforce is required to adapt to a rapidly evolving operating environment.
  • Technology, including artificial intelligence, will upend some traditional healthcare roles, but a ‘human’ element remains a key focus for the provision of services.
  • A proactive, strategic planning approach will help guide leaders through this period of immense change.

Like many industries, healthcare is in the midst of a transformation. Rapid digitisation, increasing and changing demand for services, evolving community and government expectations, and major investments in health infrastructure are driving well documented changes across the healthcare system.

The impact of these changes on the existing healthcare workforce is significant. Organisations will need to manage the transition of current employees to potentially new and different ways of working. They will require professionals to work increasingly in multi-disciplinary teams, while healthcare systems will need to balance the benefits of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) alongside the ever present need for the ‘human touch’.

Workforce strategies
and considerations

A number of workforce strategies are required in the coming years to manage these future challenges and opportunities. Three in particular are not only foundational but at this stage have the highest potential to benefit preparations for a ready and capable health workforce in the future:

Collaborative mindsets and ways of working 

There will always be a place for the settings of care we see today, such as hospitals, primary care and aged care. However, the future will see the boundaries between these care settings become less clear, as they need to collaborate together around things like chronic disease management. 

It will require a change of focus towards the management of patients outside traditional healthcare settings, including remote monitoring, case management and preventative care. To enable this, new entrants to the workforce will need to be prepared for this new way of working, with a strong focus on collaboration and encouraging health professionals to consider holistic patient care and outcomes.

Pivotal to the success in this shift to a collaborative mindset is collective leadership, which prioritises high performing leadership teams over individuals and self interest. At the heart of this new world is significant and ongoing cultural change, and leaders must understand their role in driving this, as well as committing to the change as a continual, collaborative effort. 

New skills to leverage technology

After years of investment into core, clinical systems, we’ve reached the tipping point where healthcare systems have enough of the right type of data to really inform clinical and administrative decisions, matched by technology which allows for better diagnostics and automation.

The effective use of this technology is crucial to optimal and efficient delivery of services, and will require the workforce to continuously learn, update and adapt skills to new operating environments. Programming, data analytics and human behaviour may need to be integrated into medical curriculums to ensure the talent pipeline attains the relevant skills before entering the workforce. Planning for the impact of technology, and therefore the required workforce, on health service delivery needs to be done now. Failure to strategically consider and develop the critical skills required for the future will adversely compromise the capacity of healthcare organisations to deliver services safely.

While these technologies will prove transformative in improving patient outcomes — such as AI which will help unlock the vast amounts of available but unstructured health data to enable more accurate diagnoses at an exponentially faster rate — the ‘human’ and more personal aspects will become more important. Digital and technological solutions will automate some work, dispense with some traditional roles and augment human effort. AI and robotics technology will free up clinicians for other types of work that enable them to spend more meaningful time with their patients

Leaders will need to be much clearer about their reskilling strategy and what these forthcoming changes really mean for their workforce, e.g. which soft skills are required alongside digital skills? The nurturing of human qualities in the workforce, particularly leadership, creativity, empathy and curiosity, are essential to making the most of new technologies. Although functional skills related to automation and AI will be critical, they will not work without more ‘high-touch’ people-oriented capabilities.

Supply challenges and shortages

An ageing workforce will see a high volume of retirements over the next 5-10 years, with significant impacts on particular clinical specialties  in addition to the acute shortage forecasted for nurses. These shortages are expected to be felt strongly in rural and remote areas, exacerbated by ongoing recruitment and retention challenges. 

Consideration of multiple talent pipelines will be critical. Optimising current employment models and promoting greater cross-sector and cross-government collaboration to attract and retain critical skills may be key to addressing supply concerns. Flexible resourcing may also offer opportunities to explore alternative models of practice and partnerships. This can enable a shift to more agile structures and ways of working, supporting healthcare organisations to have the right skills in the right place at the right time to meet fluctuating demand. 

Importantly, this strategy will need to be underpinned by contemporary workforce policies and practices that support the shift in model of care delivery.

Start from
where you are

To prepare the healthcare workforce for the future, leaders will need to consider all aspects of culture, technology and ways of working. However, one critical step that healthcare organisations need to undertake now is strategic workforce planning to assess the sector’s capabilities, and supply challenges and shortages, to develop the essential initiatives to prepare their workforce for the future.

To drive transformation efforts, PwC recommends a five-step workforce planning approach:

Healthcare workforce of the future action plan

By understanding and setting future workforce requirements in the health sector, including the skills required to use and optimise technologies, a strategic workforce planning process can support and sustain a coordinated, collaborative and patient-centric approach to delivering care. It will also help healthcare organisations navigate through the complexity of their current and future operating environment to ensure a capable, appropriately sized and sustainable workforce.

Rapid and diverse changes in the healthcare sector are in train, with more expected in the future. To ensure that it continues to be responsive to community needs, and the workforce continues to be capable of delivering positive patient and community outcomes, the sector needs to develop early and proactive strategies to effect positive cultural change. Proactive planning and preparation today with an eye to tomorrow is critical; the health of future generations depend on it.


This is an edited version of an article originally appearing in PwC’s Health Matters publication.

 

Ben Hamer contributor

Contributor

Dr Ben Hamer

Ben is a director in the People and Organisation consulting practice at PwC Australia.

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Caitlin Guilfoyle contributor

Contributor

Caitlin Guilfoyle

Caitlin is a manager in the People and Organisation consulting practice at PwC Australia.

More About Caitlin Guilfoyle