This week, the Digital Health Academy became freely available for all healthcare professionals in the UK to upskill frontline workers on their digital health literacy.

The Digital Health Academy sets out to actively engage over 50,000 UK healthcare professionals in its first year, and all 630,000 NHS health care professionals by 2031. The intent is that the CPD-accredited online training platform will help build a “digital-ready workforce” which has been emphasised as a critical need in NHSX’s (NHS user experience) Readiness Plan.

A new approach

The Digital Health Academy is the first training programme of its kind. Currently, there is no mandatory digital health training for healthcare professionals and courses that frontline staff can attend are often scarcely available and difficult to access. The programme, says the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps (ORCHA), is a response to this need. The academy is sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim and developed by ORCHA in partnership with NHS clinicians and universities.

The programme is broken down into short, bite-sized learning modules. It features two foundation modules that explain the function of health apps, the current digital health landscape, the barriers to using and adopting digital health, and the importance of prescribing good quality digital health products. Soon to be added will be a series of specialist modules including topics such as digital health for mental health, diabetes, physiotherapy, long-Covid, and winter pressures, says ORCHA.

“It takes quite a paradigm shift to move physicians away from seeing prescribing as an exclusively pharmaceutical enterprise,” said Joel Brown, a Doctor who reviewed the foundation modules.  “As medicine is increasingly digitised, clinicians need to take seriously the opportunity to prescribe digital health.”

Calls for digital health training

There’s widespread recognition of the need for digital health training for frontline workers, with organisations such as the King’s Fund and the Royal College of General Practitioners highlighting this need, said Uday Bose, the managing director at Boehringer Ingelheim UK & Ireland.

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Bose added: “With six million people now waiting for elective care, and with first-class digital tools available which could support healthcare workers with many of the high volume and low complexity cases, the need to improve digital skills and digital confidence in the NHS has become critical. We felt the academy was a perfect way to address this very real need amongst frontline staff.”

A recent poll commissioned by ORCHA found that while 65% of the public are open to trying digital health technologies, only a fraction of tools are being recommended by healthcare professionals with 17% of recommendations coming from GPs, 8% from hospital doctors, and 2% from nurses.

That said, throughout the pandemic, ORCHA, which provides app libraries for 70% of NHS regions, saw a 6,500% increase in healthcare professionals recommending technologies to their patients.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid recently highlighted in a recent speech and noted by various UK authorities and organisations that the NHS must boost digital provision across all health and care services.

According to the King’s Fund’s 2019 position on digital healthcare: “Digital technologies are integral to many of the changes envisaged in the NHS long-term plan. Making a reality of these ambitions will require a stronger emphasis on engaging and upskilling the people who are expected to use digital technologies at all levels in the NHS, particularly clinicians.”

In a recent Medical Device Network interview with ORCHA’s founding CEO, Liz Ashall-Payne, she highlighted the need for training doctors how to prescribe digital technologies as well as what to prescribe, because, as she believes “digital health is going to be the new medicine.”

“Covid-19 accelerated the rapid adoption of digital health across health and care services and the need to embed digital health in the long term,” said Head of Health Education England Technology Enhanced Learning, Dr Neil Ralph.

“We are delighted that ORCHA has contributed its Digital Health Academy foundation content to the Learning Hub and look forward to hosting new content in the future, further supporting health and care professionals in their roles.”