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Demand for Digital Health Talent
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by Lori Lindburg, President & CEO, CLSI

I recently had the opportunity to join panelists at the launch of the 2019 Digital Health Trends Report to discuss the talent shortages in the emerging digital health industry, as well as some strategies for meeting them.  The report by Accenture and CLSA included surveys and interviews with over 200 life science leaders and employees, 60% of whom stated that acquiring and retaining digital health talent is a significant challenge.

Digital health has also been a recurring phenomenon in the biennial CA Workforce Trends report co-produced by CLSI. Both reports note the competition for talent between the tech and life sciences industries as they increasingly overlap.  Broadly speaking, it has been a lot easier for tech to recruit or poach talent for individuals who are not comfortable with the highly-regulated, low tolerance for error, and long development timelines of the life sciences industry, versus the rapid-paced, quick-to-profit timelines for tech. For the life sciences industry, this is exacerbated by the fact that many students still do not know what the industry is or the vast and rewarding careers that are available, when Facebook and Google, are part of students’ day-to-day lives [CA Workforce Trends Report].

Yet it is important to recognize the vast and different types of positions that fall under the loose classification of “digital health.”  It is perhaps more useful to think of digital health as a continuum where, on the biotech end, products are driven by biology and are thus heavily regulated with long development timelines – such as a smart pill or an inserted device.

The other far tech-oriented end consists of more data-driven, direct-to-consumer products and services with rapid development timelines, such as many of the wearables. And there is a host of other positions and talent needs that fall between the two ends. Talent needs differ significantly when looking at the addition of technology tools to life sciences, which requires a deeper scientific knowledge on the part of developers, versus software that is targeting the administration of healthcare delivery or even direct delivery of healthcare to the patient, often through cell-phones and other devices.

Our panel agreed that there are opportunities for shared learning between the two industries in meeting the demand for the various digital health segments. Life science companies are not necessarily the best at developing the technological tools that could change the way drugs are developed, for instance, but could help software developers understand what kinds of technological tools and capabilities would help to drive discovery if applied correctly. And in some instances, tech talent could also help more conservative-minded life science companies recognize where tech could accelerate life science solutions.

Similarly, while tech talent is going to be better equipped to develop many of these tools, there are other important regulatory and reimbursement factors to consider when developing health-related technologies. It’s not enough to simply gather lots of data on an app, for example; data needs to be clinically validated.

The panelists agreed that California is well-positioned to meet this broad and accelerating demand: California leads the world in both life sciences and tech innovation – we are known for our eagerness to embrace new ideas; the proximity of the two world-leading industries provides considerable opportunities for integration and cross-fertilization, and; California is well-resourced to lead, with digital health venture funding, attracting over $3.9 billion in 2018 [2019 Digital Health Report].

In addition, California’s world-class academic institutions can draw upon these factors to provide the curricular roadmaps for the digital health industry and opportunities to bring “learning to life” by providing industry-relevant experience for students. Lastly, California’s “Wild Wild West” mentality, and the spirit of collaboration that has underpinned the success of both industries, will further help to drive innovation at their intersection.