I think we can all agree that it might be time to rethink the concept of a "new normal". With the steady approach of the pandemic’s second anniversary and not much clarity or certainty about when we will see its end, I think it is safe to say that the future won’t be "normal" at all.
Our jobs and daily lives have had to adapt in order to survive. But beyond survival, looking to the complex process of recovery, it is also clear that we cannot afford to go back to a traditional way of thinking and living, especially in the context of health care.
To ensure health care organisations can thrive amid turbulence requires creating a new breed of a healthcare leader to take the wheel – one who will successfully guide health care into tomorrow.
Flexibility is important, and for future leaders in the sector that will mean a desire to experiment and keep a chronically open mind. A good future leader should not be overly conservative because of the staggering rate of change we are experiencing that is leading us into the future world. Diseases, technology, and treatment methods are constantly evolving, so the ability to be highly adaptable will hold the future in good stead. The health sector's traditions and culture are important, but there is a significant danger in being fixated on old habits and the comfort of how things used to be.
It is also important to have a focused understanding of the nature of human beings and what it means to receive care from a patient’s perspective. With technology and digitalisation increasingly dominating the field of health care, the levels of human input and interaction have reduced, leading us to forget an all-important truth: that care is not just about treatment or diagnosis.
Care runs much deeper. There are emotions to it. The human touch is a fundamental part of care. If we are going to rely on technology, it should evolve to support human aspirations to care for the sick, rather than be reduced to something defined by numbers and machines. The time that we save using technology to treat patients should be channelled back into the art of caring; and a healthcare leader of tomorrow will need to understand and live out that balance.
The patient of tomorrow will not be the same as the patient of today. The likelihood is that they will be much more informed, thanks to the increasing availability of health-related information online. We are seeing a growing trend in which patients are a lot more involved in their own care. They are becoming increasingly more knowledgeable about the state of their own health, the treatments available and the specialists available to treat them.
But that doesn't mean they will interpret that information correctly. One important role of the healthcare system is to adapt what patients know to their specific context – to take that information and present it in a way that makes sense to the patient. Anyone can read about diseases on the internet, often developing a narrow understanding, but healthcare leaders will have a role to play in providing education to give a more in-depth, tailored understanding of diseases.
The future seems to be coming at us faster every day, but the sector overall still lags behind in its education efforts. The current focus is content-driven, but in a future world, memorising content will become redundant since everything is freely searchable on Google. While it is useful to have a reserve of knowledge in your mind, what will make our future leaders effective is creativity.
Those of us who work in health education should train the sector's professionals by designing scenarios that bring their creativity into play, with simulations that bring out critical and lateral thinking and creative and meaningful problem solving.
Another interesting school of thought which continues to be the subject of debate is understanding whether our healthcare curriculum needs to be as broad as it currently is. There are provocative questions that can and should be asked. Does the process of formal education really need to be as long as it is? Or would speciality training be more effective in meeting future needs? What about hybrid schooling, like the recent combination of medicine and engineering?
Change is slow when thinking about making adaptations to healthcare education and, looking at the global context, there are huge differences. Healthcare systems that are traditionally conservative have the same curriculum that has prevailed for decades, whereas other contexts are more open to creating adaptive programmes that are more compatible with the future we are projected to see. Where and how we meet in the middle, we have yet to see.
There is nothing "normal" about the future of health care. A good healthcare leader of tomorrow has quite the cross-cultural task ahead of them, balancing deeply entrenched tradition and thought with channelling the high energy of a significantly bright future for the healthcare sector.