What skills will be needed in the healthcare industry in 10 years

16 July 2020
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This report is based on a roundtable discussion with top level members of academia, industry and investors held on the 27th June 2019 at the Health Horizons Future Healthcare Forum in Cambridge, UK organize by Innovation Forum. The Innovation Forum is an accelerator for healthcare ventures.

I am a member of the Basque Branch. I had the chance to be in the roundtable and these are the main conclusions and summarize of the main ideas that were discussed. The ultimate success of the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy is closely tied to the ability to train and recruit the best possible workforce, equipped with a breadth of critical skills. As a highly diverse sector, life sciences are dependent on a skills base that covers the major areas of biomedical science.

In order for the skills base to be developed in line with the needs of the sector, the life sciences sector should come together to develop and deliver a reinforced skills action plan across the NHS, commercial and academic sectors, based on a gap analysis which identifies the key skill areas for future focus. This is expected to include clinical pharmacology, clinical trials, manufacturing, data science, clinical science, engineering and biosciences. In this brief report I summarize some relevant aspects:

Effects of the dramatic increase in digital technology innovation and knowledge accumulation

According to a study of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, the medical knowledge has been expanding exponentially: in 1950 the estimated time to double the knowledge was 50 years, in 2010 the expected time was already 3-5 years and the projection for 2020 is only 73 days. Besides, healthcare jobs of the future are likely to be closely related to digital technology, since it is revolutionizing not only the quality and possibility of obtaining data, but it is increasingly entering daily clinical practice, affecting protocols and procedures in the clinical domain, meaning that clinical personnel will need to be fluent in data analysis technologies.

Examples of data and artificial intelligence driven clinical practice will include routine diagnosis aids based on, for example, automated image analysis (e.g. X-ray photographs or MRI scans). Clinical personnel will need to be able not only to use data analysis tools but also to critically asses any results obtained.

The degree to which technology should change current medical procedures is already the subject of an intensive debate. It is clear, however, that more training in data analysis, digital and programming skills is needed. Overall the healthcare professional of the future will have to possess a much broader set of skills and hence the professional education will have to become increasingly multi-disciplinary.

The need of generalist profiles that support specialist profiles

Most educational and professional development pathways, from schools to university programs, doctoral and postdoctoral studies, are currently focused on increased specialization within a given field. It is, of course, necessary that scientists focus their work within specialized narrow fields, because it is the only way to push knowledge boundaries. However, with the progress of specialization it also becomes increasingly important to train people with generalist profiles, who are able to understand the various experts and help to connect the narrow fields of expertise with other ones and consequently, face to broader problems with a more comprehensive overview.

People with generalist skills are critically needed in such areas as science translation to commercial products or to policy insights. There are a number of people, predisposed to develop generalist knowledge profiles, however this type of profile is still seen as unfocused and there are few rewards for obtaining generalist skills in most work settings.

Systemic approaches to developing and incorporating generalist profiles within academia, industry, healthcare delivery or civil service are desired in order to fully leverage the benefits of increased specialization and digital automation.

In particular, when it comes to science education, in order to recruit people with more generalist predisposition to the science workforce a more proactive approach already at the primary and secondary school level is needed. Students need to be aware that while narrow specialization with a specific field is one option there are other opportunities for people with diverse skillsets.

Changing the culture to allow multi-professional working

In the past and up until recently it was possible to spend an entire professional career carrying out same or very similar tasks until retirement. Due to technological innovation and digital transformation this situation has, however, been changing rapidly and the pace of change will accelerate further going into the future. It is expected that working professionals will have to “re-invent” themselves and change careers several times during their lifetime.

It is therefore necessary, that the educational systems prepare the next generations to this changing environment. The skills that will be needed in 2029 might not even exist in 2019. So it is important to focus on teaching “how to think” not “what to think”.

It is necessary to change the educational and reward system by emphasizing other soft skills as well, and in particular teamwork as it is one of the key drivers to enable multi-professional careers.

The healthcare industry in particular is highly multidisciplinary and it requires both narrow specialization as well as advanced facilitation of translation and dissemination of knowledge. More cross-talk and work exchanges between the various stakeholders (Big Pharma, biotech, academia, medical doctors, etc.) are vital for future development of this industry.

Further exchanges between the pharmaceutical and biotech industry sectors and academia can be encouraged by industry-funded PhD and postdoctoral trainings. What is more, platforms and programs are currently being developed to allow scientists from biotech companies, academia and industry to work side by side often sharing equipment and research facilities.

The mobility between sectors is still very limited in most cases, and multiple career paths with multi-skilled profiles would be needed to improve it. Developing flexible, modular training pathways with dedicated funding and aligned incentives for the various stakeholders could be a solution to further encourage crosstalk, knowledge and skills transfer between sectors and stakeholders in healthcare. This would in turn lead to an increased capacity for collaboration and teamwork in a particular work setting but also across stakeholder groups.

As conclusion, we can say that anticipating future skills needs for health professionals is crucial in order to meet the new demands of the future healthcare industry. In this brief report, only some key aspects have been discussed and more extensive studies and analysis should be carried out. The deep changes that are happening in healthcare due to technological innovation and digital transformation motivate a move to re-think the culture and re-design career paths for health professionals.

New roles are also anticipated for the various stakeholders, the pharmaceutical industry, academia, healthcare providers, etc. in the future healthcare systems.

The full article can be read in Health Insights: Skills for a healthier future.

Iñaki Ortego Isasa


Iñaki Ortego Isasa

He received the M.Sc. degree in telecommunications engineering and the Ph.D. degree in electronics and communications from Tecnun, University of Navarra, Donostia - San Sebastián, Spain, in 2010 and 2014, respectively. During his Ph.D. studies, he was a Research Scientist in the Department of Electronics and Communications, Centro de Estudios Técnicas de Gipuzkoa, Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain.

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Author:Iñaki Ortego Isasa
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