New HEE report makes recommendations for improving bioinformatics workforce

Health Education England’s (HEE) Digital Readiness Programme has released a report on how to improve the bioinformatics workforce in the NHS. 

The 49-page report is split into several sections and was compiled by Nicola Calder of the Digital Readiness Programme at Health Education England, and Muhammed Akdag and Dr Daniel Aaron Press of Enera Consulting UK.  

The report is a key part of the Digital Readiness Programme and uses workshops and stakeholder interviews to “build a comprehensive understanding of the factors related to the commissioning, training, and employment of clinical bioinformaticians in the NHS” and is “developing recommendations for keeping more clinical bioinformaticians within the ecosystem of the NHS.”   

In the executive summary section of the report, five key themes are highlighted that could affect “the retention and utilisation of clinical bioinformaticians”: 

  • Altruism and benevolence as ‘common traits for NHS clinical bioinformaticians’. 
  • Scientist Training Programme (STP) trainees wishing to stay in their training trusts but, when not possible, sometimes leaving the NHS. 
  • The nature of the work in the NHS as a big pull factor – but ‘undemanding and conventional tasks’ could be pushing some people out. 
  • A perceived lack of promotion opportunities could be causing more experienced staff to leave. 
  • Low awareness of the ‘capabilities of bioinformaticians’ is seen to be reducing the value they generate. 

As a result of this, a number of initiatives have been introduced in this area across three categories: training and commissioning, stakeholder engagement, and infrastructure and support.  

The series of recommendations that relate to training and commissioning are as below:

  • Develop a strategy to provide ‘timely information’ about post-graduation employment opportunities to trainees.
  • Set out a proposed model of how to involve external partners in commissioning and training by looking at research departments, particularly in universities with links to NHS trusts. 
  • Survey NHS trusts and Integrated Care Systems (ICS) to find departments where clinical bioinformatics training could be provided.

Two actions that addresses stakeholder engagement are also outlined:

  • Ensure that an ‘extensive and inclusive’ selection of stakeholders are engaged for phase 2 of the project, through the HEE Clinical Bioinformatics Advisory Group (HEE-CBIAG) – a new group that will play a key role in creating a better space for bioinformaticians.
  • Develop ‘alternative’ promotional activities to raise awareness of clinical bioinformatics, especially within trusts and ICSs.

Later in the report, barriers to clinical bioinformatics were also discussed. Over the course of various workshops, HEE found that some participants felt there was a “lack of understanding of the role and importance of clinical bioinformatics in the NHS” and that “the title ‘clinical bioinformatician’ may be creating confusion.”  

In addition to the workshop findings, a number of in-depth interviews were carried out, with some interviewees commenting on the lack of promotion opportunities in the field.

If this pushes people out of the NHS, the report believes it could result in: lower representation of this discipline at senior levels, which could lead to low awareness of clinical bioinformatics at trust-level; NHS trusts may then reduce the resources for clinical bioinformaticians, causing high levels of “firefighting” and staff turnover; that turnover could then reduce the number of experienced clinical bioinformaticians able to apply for senior roles.

The report concludes with five ‘next steps’ to progress the programme and develop bioinformatics. These include the forming of the HEE-CBIAG advisory group, a review by key stakeholders, public availability of the report on HEE’s website, and using social media channels to publicise it and invite feedback.

The full report can be found here.