Insights (Essays)

Insights (Essays) May 2021

A Perspective on Health Science Education: Challenges and Opportunities

Giovanni Salas


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront the importance of having enough competent healthcare professionals to provide adequate care, especially to the old and vulnerable populations. The pandemic has exposed the inadequate standards of care – particularly in long-term care facilities – and the inadequate numbers of healthcare providers in the system, and it has served as a wake-up call to governments everywhere that corrective actions need to be taken. There have also been some positive developments. The lockdowns have demonstrated that digital technologies can facilitate virtual care and healthcare collaboration, including the sharing of information within and across national boundaries.  

A report by the United Nations projects that the world’s older population (60 years of age and above) will surpass 2 billion by 2050. As populations age, healthcare systems around the world will be tasked to care for more people and, as a result, will need to hire more qualified workers. To meet growing healthcare needs in the US, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics estimates that they will need to add 2 million healthcare jobs over the next decade. The Association of American Medical Schools predicts that the US will have a shortage of medical doctors of 139,000 by 2033. Here in Canada, the Canadian Nurses Association estimates that we will have a shortage of around 60,000 nurses by 2022. The provincial government of Quebec recently announced that they would try to recruit nearly 2,000 nurses from overseas to address their labour shortage.

Advances in healthcare technologies are progressing at an astounding pace.  Digital technologies, artificial intelligence and robotics are just a few of the technologies that promise to reshape the way healthcare services are provided. To fully realize the benefits of these technologies, people and technology must work hand in hand. Healthcare workers must have the necessary skills and competencies to remain relevant, and use these emerging healthcare technologies effectively.

Hospitals and health science educational institutions are being asked to provide more and better services with shrinking budgets, while complying with an increasing number of government regulations.

When considering the challenges and opportunities facing the healthcare sector over the coming decades, there are several questions to ask:

  • With rapidly aging populations, will healthcare providers be able to recruit enough skilled workers to meet the expected demand?
  • With the introduction of new healthcare technologies and medicine practices/processes, how will healthcare providers ensure that their staff remain knowledgeable and equipped to provide the best possible care?
  • How will governments respond to the pressure the pandemic has put on them to ensure an adequate standard of care for their citizens?

The answers to these questions are not straightforward but they suggest opportunities for governments, healthcare providers and technology companies to contribute to the development of a better healthcare system.

Governments in developed countries will be looking outside their national borders to recruit healthcare workers to overcome current shortages. These professionals should be vetted not only based on their academic credentials but also on the assessment of standard competencies developed by governments and professional healthcare associations.

Currently, the education and training of most healthcare professionals is centred around courses and accreditations. However, there is a difference between completing course requirements and demonstrating competency – the appropriate application of skills, attitudes and experiences – in real-life healthcare settings. Trying to ensure that the competencies of thousands of healthcare workers are up to date has long been an unwieldy task for institutions and governments. Plenty of data has been collected, but managers and health administrators have generally not been able to derive from the data the required insights about skills and skill gaps that they need to manage their human resources in the most effective way. In times of crisis, including the current pandemic, governments have struggled to efficiently redeploy healthcare resources because of this lack of information. Undoubtedly, a more efficient method of managing healthcare competencies would result in a better understanding of the skills available in the healthcare system and how to deploy them in an optimal way.

Many of us have witnessed the disappearance of the charting and manually filing of records at our doctor’s offices. With emerging technologies in electronic record keeping – and the wider adoption of telemedicine – doctors, nurses and patients should have more access to data and more options to communicate effectively. Continuous advances in information technology and the invention of new devices have the potential to increase the quality of care healthcare professionals can offer their patients. However, the proper acquisition of competencies on how to use these new systems and devices effectively, without sacrificing empathy and human touch, should not be underestimated.

Healthcare solutions that focus on training, professional development, the achievement of competencies and relevant data analytics will enable governments and hospitals to have a better prepared workforce for better patient outcomes. 

About the Author(s)

Giovanni Salas, PhD, is a researcher in knowledge sharing and the acquisition of personal knowledge. He is also an entrepreneur and co-founder of technology companies including Knowledge4You, now a business unit of Logibec, Inc.


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