In a previous post we blogged about the changing nature of medical practice: the influences of regulation, guidelines, sub-specialisation, and patient expectations. We mentioned skills substitution, whereby less experienced staff take on tasks previously carried out by doctors. We also mentioned the role of Information Technology, but shied away from discussing the implications for medical manpower. However, it seems important to ask whether Information Technology could reduce the need for medical input by increasing the scope for skill substitution. Some patients have complex needs or vague symptoms, and such patients we assume will need to be seen by someone with deep medical knowledge to underpin professional judgements, and to provide patients with such an informed account of the probable causes of their illness and the risks and benefits of viable options. But much of medicine is rather algorithmic. A patient presents with back pain – follow the guidelines and refer the patient if any ‘red flags’ appear, for example. Many of the criteria for referral and treatment are specified in guidelines. Meanwhile, computers increasingly find abnormal patterns in a patient’s data that the doctor has overlooked. Work in CLAHRC WM shows that many patients do not receive indicated medicines. Health promotion can be delivered by nurse and routine follow-up cases triaged by Physician Assistants. A technician can be trained to perform many surgical operations, such as hernia repair and varicose vein removals, and Physician Assistants already administer anaesthetics safely in many parts of the world. Surely we should re-define medicine to cover the cognitively demanding aspect of care and those where judgements must be made under considerable uncertainty.
In the USA they talk about “people working up to their license”. What they mean is that it is inefficient for people to work for extended periods at cognitive or skill levels well below those they have attained by virtue of their intellect and education. Working way below the level is not only inefficient, but deeply frustrating for the clinician involved, predisposing them to burn out. Use doctors to doctor, not to fill in forms and perform routine surgical operations.
We conclude by suggesting that there is a case for re-engineering medical care or at least articulating a forward vision. The next step is some careful modelling, informed by experts, to map patterns of practice, assign tasks to cognitive categories, and calculate manpower configurations that are both safe and economical. Such a process would likely identify a more specific, cognitively elite role for expensive personnel who have trained for 15 years to obtain their license. In turn, this may suggest that less people of this type will be needed in the future.
While high-income countries should address the question “how much should we reduce the medical workforce, if at all?”, low-income countries face the reciprocal question, “by how much should we increase the medical work-force?” Countries such as Kenya have only two doctors per 10,000 population, compared to 28 in the UK, and 25 in the United States. Much of the shortfall is covered by other cadres, especially medical officers (who work independently), and nurses. Health personnel are strongly buttressed by community health workers, a type of health worker that we have discussed in previous posts.  Information Technology is unsurprisingly very under-developed in low-income countries, although telemedicine is increasingly used. It is particularly difficult to attract doctors to work in rural areas, and there is the perennial issue of the medical brain drain. The time is thus propitious to consider carefully the human resource needs not just of high-, but also of low- and middle-income countries, and consider how these may be affected by improving Information Technology infrastructure.
— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director
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- World Health Organization. Health Workforce: Density of Physicians (total number per 1000 population): Latest available year. 2015.
- Lilford RJ. Lay Community Health Workers. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 10 April 2015.
- Lilford RJ. An Intervention So Big You Can see it From Space. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 4 December 2015.