Health technology needs greater diversity

Technology can improve the health of healthcare, but requires improvements in diversity if the course is to succeed.

A passing glance at the healthcare sector suggests diversity is stronger in the clinical sector than any other vertical market. Despite a high number of women clinicians, the sector has diversity challenges and this is clearly seen in the technology and leadership element of health. Although the diagnosis is of an underlying health issue, health technology leaders can and in some cases are actively treating the problem.

"Healthcare is a sector with one of the most diverse workforces collectively, and should be applauded for that, but the same cannot be said of its leadership teams, and that has to be addressed as technology becomes an increasingly important part of clinical care and operational management," says Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, President of techUK, an industry body. 

Diversity, in all its elements, is vital to healthcare and health technology. A study into racial diversity in the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK found diversity to be vital to ensure: "a motivated, included and valued workforce helps deliver high quality patient care, increased patient satisfaction and better patient safety." The same values of care, inclusion, satisfaction and patient safety extrapolate across to the technologies clinicians and health organisations use. 

"As society becomes increasingly technology dependent, it is essential that the creation and production of these solutions are carried out by a diverse community that is representative of its users," de Rojas adds. 


Health risks

If health tech providers and services fail to be as representative as the wider society a series of risks will infect the sector. "The potential for the rising use of algorithms to improve the analysis and management of health data, for example, is well documented, but it is also a technology that demonstrates the potential pitfalls of poor diversity," de Rojas says. "If an algorithm is going to decide if an individual gets a certain medical treatment, place at university, a job interview, or a mortgage, then as a society we had better make sure that the groups designing those algorithms are as diverse and reflective of the patients, potential students, interview candidates or mortgage applicants. If we fail to build a diverse community of technology creators, we are building a world that won't work properly."

Sectors such as retail, financial services, media and technology are all discovering that not having diversity of thought in the development of applications and tools can hamper production and miss out on vital segments of society and thus lose customer opportunities. "Diversity is no longer a nice to have," says co-founder and director of eSynergy Solutions, a technology consultancy focused on cloud delivery. "Without diversity internally in your organisation you cannot truly understand your customer. In our experience diversity fosters a culture of change, growth, innovation and empathy. This has led to deeper and more meaningful relationships within our customers & communities." 

"There is a wealth of evidence that organisations with high levels of diversity in their leadership teams make better decisions over 80% of the time; which testifies to inclusion being an important issue across all departments," de Rojas says.

"The journey that we are going through in the NHS is one of collaboration, and if we don't do this journey, the NHS won't survive beyond 2025," adds Sarah Marsden a health technology leader with experience at global health technology provider DXC, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and InHealth Group. Marsden says that digital modernisation of the business processes of health service providers is changing the way organisations operate.

Not only does diversity improve the technological outcome for the patient and health provider, but there's wider benefits that some health technology leaders may not have considered. "Mental health and diversity and inclusion are often viewed as distinct and separate issues," wrote Alex Chisholm, who is now the UK's most senior civil servant. "I believe they are complementary issues that together work hand in hand to help us all fight ignorance and stigma in the workplace and help us give everyone a voice."  As permanent secretary to the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Chisholm was at the helm of an organisation that made major improvements to diversity in its technology team. 

Mandy Griffin, CIO at Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Trust is an example of a leader in a trust where diversity is the norm. The Yorkshire health service provider has a black chief executive. "My executive team is all women," she says. "I have never felt disadvantaged by being female." Griffin and Calder are at the forefront of digital healthcare and arguably the two are connected and her experience backs up the beliefs of civil service leader Chisholm. 


Talent and recruitment

"As technology leaders we have to make sure that during recruitment we are looking outward and not inward, to ensure we do not create organisations that are homogenised," de Rojas observes. "Diversity is more than just improving the split between the genders. Important as that is, organisations also need to consider geographical and neuro-diversity. Some people with autism and Asperger's syndrome for example, have been known to have a superhuman ability to spot patterns many others cannot see and therefore, can bring so much to an organisation. Excluding anyone from the workplace potentially shuts out skills that could be highly valuable to organisations."  

Crompton at eSynergy Solutions agrees and adds that embracing diversity has to be a set of values alongside collaboration and growth in the organisation, adding that if diversity becomes a core value then it becomes a "positive force for good internally and for customers".

Dr Zafar Chaudry, CIO of the children's hospital of Seattle, USA agrees and aims to develop technology talent from within the organisation. "Finding a tech centric person that is really embedded in the organisation is not easy. Sometimes you have to grow them, sometimes you hire from non-healthcare areas." 

"Moreover, increasing diversity and inclusion in the NHS will not only tackle the shortage of skills we face as a community, but improve products and services, and patient care," says de Rojas.

The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has demonstrated clearly that a decade of under-funding in healthcare services has damaged the sector. Health providers have not fully embraced the opportunities of digital methods, not through a lack of interest, but through no available funding. In the UK a decade of Conservative government cuts to the public sector and healthcare has had a widely reported level of damage to the NHS. "Austerity does have an impact on the ability to deliver better patient care. We have been in deficit since I have been with the trust, but we have always found ways to deliver the care," Griffin at Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Trust says. 

With unemployment at record levels and the health sector having to deal with a new global illness that, to date, has no cure, technology will play a vital role. Patient journey lessons can be learned from retail technology, business process improvements can be adopted from financial services and asset management from the travel sector. But to adopt these technologies and ensure patients receive great care requires improved diversity.