Nearly 100,000 jobs remained vacant in the IT industry in 2021.1 And the health care sector proved no exception. No matter whether in hospitals and medical practices or in health IT companies: good people are hard to find. And this although conditions could be worse, as the industry now offers flexible working models and the sense of "purpose" so often desired by young professionals. After all, intelligent software solutions and their application have a direct impact on people's well-being. Are the gaps in staffing levels based on a lack of young talent, unattractive terms and conditions, or the reputation of the profession itself? This is the question we asked Prof. Dr. Bernhard Breil, Professor of Health Informatics at the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences in Krefeld. He could not find a clearcut answer either - but he did offer many different suggestions for making healthcare IT appealing to young people.
Professor Breil, the shortage of skilled IT personnel could give the impression that young people are no longer interested in studying computer sciences. Can you confirm this from a university perspective?
Bernhard Breil: IT compares favorably to other degree courses. Overall, student numbers are declining in all subjects and at all universities and colleges. One reason for this are the years with a lower birth rate, which is why the number of students is simply lower. Add to this a high level of fragmentation in the degree courses, which means that the few students are now spread across more subjects. Here in Krefeld, enrollment in the medical informatics program is constant - but a touch too low. We could train more people academically and the market could also use more skilled personnel. But we also have to differentiate: the numbers in computer sciences overall are good, and the courses at our new Cyber Campus NRW are in very high demand. In other words, the interest is still there and is apparently also driven by the topics currently en vogue in the media.
If the number of students is not declining, then where are all the graduates? Why aren't they attracted to finding their way into hospitals and businesses?
Bernhard Breil: There is certainly not one single reason, it is a mixture of different issues. In my opinion, public perception plays a role. Almost every day, we read in the newspapers and on the Internet about how little the healthcare system has been digitized, how slow projects like the introduction of the electronic health card are progressing, how many regulations there are, how restrictive the laws are, and that data protection prevents everything anyway. Of course, this gives the impression that the real action in IT takes place somewhere else. I think the industry would need to emphasize the creative scope that health IT offers much more strongly. Especially in view of the fact that young people today don't just want to earn money, but want to make a difference and achieve something good with their commitment. And there is no doubt that one can in our industry. Intelligent IT and good digitization are the key to greater health and life prospects. After all, we are dealing with very grateful "customers".
Also with a view to the possibilities offered by artificial intelligence in medicine and the resulting added value, one would think that health IT is an exciting field.
Bernhard Breil: Definitely. AI is always catchy. But we also need people who can do the translation work convincingly. Who can show the specifics of healthcare and what the issues are. Because before a line of code is even written, one must first answer the question of which problem is to be solved. In medicine, the message is not yet clear enough; we talk too much about problems and too little about opportunities and development potential.
And in addition to the content, the underlying conditions of the workplace also play a role. Young people expect flexibility, a better work-life balance, more time for the family. Our industry can also offer this flexibility in principle, as we learned during the years of the pandemic. What counts now is to bring these processes into regular practice, to integrate them into employment contracts and to promote them properly.
Ultimately, however, hospitals in particular will have to admit that they cannot play in the top league in terms of salary. Today, money may no longer be the main issue, but it is nevertheless essential for realizing one's way of life. And this is where the big companies score more points. Nevertheless: I am convinced that we can attract people with the usefulness of medical informatics, that we offer a really important value. We just need to sell the idea better.
What can businesses do to better address young professionals?
Bernhard Breil: Career support and guidance is also an important factor. Businesses can provide students with permanent employment contracts while they are still enrolled in their bachelor's course, guide them through their studies, and enable them to complete their master's degree through part-time arrangements. A dual study program is also a very good option; we offer this in the so-called Krefeld model and aim at trainees who go to university instead of vocational school. We have very good experience in this area; students are often particularly motivated because they can apply the learning content directly in practice.
For whom do you offer such models, for businesses or for hospitals?
Bernhard Breil: Basically for both target groups. Unfortunately - one has to admit - these models are in very low demand. We have maybe three or four students each year who come directly from businesses. And that's a shame. Hospital chains in particular could position themselves as attractive career companions by offering the option of training and/or dual studies. These opportunities are currently being wasted. To ensure that the shortage of skilled personnel does not lead to additional delays in digitization in the coming years, we therefore need to adjust in several directions. We need to work on the image, position medical informatics as a socially sustainable subject with a purpose. And we need to create variable, attractive educational and professional environments to help young professionals plan their lives.
Thank you for the interview.
1 Study on the job market for IT professionals commissioned by the Digital Association Bitkom
"I think the industry would have to emphasize much more strongly the creative scope that health IT offers."
Prof. Dr. Bernhard Breil
Professor for Health Informatics at the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences in Krefeld