illustration of healthcare practitioners and patients on capsules

From the ER to elder-care, machine learning, AI and robotics are making inroads in all corners of the health care sector.

But in a workforce buffeted by technological change, health care has an advantage.

Due to the profoundly human nature of the work, advanced technologies don’t pose a significant threat to the physicians, nurses, therapists and others who provide all manner of care to Canadians. Automation will create efficiencies and replace some work, but don’t expect a robot to deliver a cancer diagnosis or replace hands-on home-care anytime soon.

That’s a welcome prognosis, but Canada’s health care sector is facing a critical test. The country’s aging population is poised to become a silver tsunami that will add another $120 billion in health care costs over the next decade. To harness the full power of technology in a country where one in four people will be seniors, the sector will need to embrace new ways of working.

According to Paging Dr. Data, a new RBC report, around 17 percent of occupations in the health care sector face a risk from automation—half the level faced by the workforce as a whole.

The sector’s robust job creation is also set to continue: there will be 370,000 job openings by 2025, and the sector will be short of workers under even the most optimistic of projections. The shortfall offers a potential career path for workers displaced in other sectors, many of whom already have some of the core skills sought in health care.

Which brings us to the reskilling challenge. Canada’s health care system needs to up its skills game, and fast. Workers hoping to make the leap into health care will need the time, funds, and external support to prepare for a career switch. Those already in the sector will need to retrain for disruptive technologies. And the sector will be looking for entirely new skills too. Think wearable-device coding and 3D printing design.

In a sea of specialists, our research revealed some themes in terms of skills needed: digital fluency (the ability to interact with and analyze data, not just collect it), an ability to deliver virtual care (as telemedicine expands), and navigational skills (to assist patients’ journey through an increasingly complex health system). Finally, the human skills at the core of the best health care—empathy, active listening, critical thinking and complex problem-solving—will be more important than ever.

The skills revolution is already happening in health care. Educators are adapting courses from other disciplines, and training for adaptability and resiliency. Doctors are talking to AI specialists about how they can build algorithms to improve care. Hospitals are adopting some of the state-of-the-art technology, enabling them to attract new talent.

Properly designed, a mix of technology, skills and innovative management can help Canada prepare for the silver tsunami. We still have time to get it right. But there’s a particular urgency to making the skills economy work for health care.

To read the full report click here.

As Senior Vice-President, Office of the CEO, John advises the executive leadership on emerging trends in Canada’s economy, providing insights grounded in his travels across the country and around the world. His work focuses on technological change and innovation, examining how to successfully navigate the new economy so more people can thrive in the age of disruption. Prior to joining RBC, John spent nearly 25 years at the Globe and Mail, where he served as editor-in-chief, editor of Report on Business, and a foreign correspondent in New Delhi, India. He is the author of three books and has a fourth underway.