Demographics and disruption will shape the future of work in the healthcare sector

By Niranjan Vivekanandan

Our country’s ability to thrive and prosper requires our hospitals to do the same. Their importance to our economic and social well-being cannot be understated. Nor can the challenges they will face in the next decade. Demographics and technological disruption represent two forces that will have a profound impact on the shape of things to come.

Hospitals will be on the frontlines of an aging population, which will place greater strains on the healthcare system, and the resources required to sustain them. Ten years from now, about one-quarter of our total population will be 65 or older, earning Canada the international distinction as being a “super-aged society.”


Caring for our elderly will ensure the pace of jobs in this sector will exceed the overall economy in the coming years. But the same demographic trend will mean fewer people will be in the workforce to take on these roles.  Even under the most optimistic scenario, demand will outstrip supply by almost 20,000 positions. The gap needs to be closed.

Yet the challenge goes deeper than that. Institutions must also adapt to a new set of skills brought on by technological disruption that is transforming the way we treat and care for people. For instance, data scientists will need to be employed to mine a hospital’s growing databases for key insights on how to improve patient outcomes. So too, 3D printing technologists to create anatomical models for surgical planning.

There is reason to be optimistic. A new report – developed in collaboration with RBC Healthcare — suggests the impact of automation will have a muted effect in healthcare settings. Some roles will be automated – in areas where processes can be simplified or streamlined, such as administrational functions or lab diagnostics.

But the profoundly human nature of work means the majority of healthcare jobs aren’t going away anytime soon. Indeed, we believe automation will enable healthcare practitioners to do the essential, human part of their jobs better than before. Human connection and bedside manner is vital but arguably even more so as we care for older patients, who often need help navigating and interacting with different parts of the healthcare system.

Actions are already underway. Educators, for instance, are already incorporating “soft skills” training into the curriculum. The University of Toronto is moving away from a focus on the perfect GPA and looking at medical school candidates’ social and inter-personal skills. The Medical Council of Canada is also re-thinking the way it evaluates physicians-in-training, placing a greater focus on the ability to problem-solve in new situations.

New sources of labour may also be available to fill many of the 370,000 new jobs that Employment and Social Development Canada estimates will be required by 2025. RBC research found there are currently one million Canadians in occupations deemed at “high-risk” of being disrupted through automation who possess a number of the vital skills required in healthcare, such as active listening, service orientation, and social perceptiveness and monitoring.

For instance, the rise in autonomous vehicles, and the implementation of drone delivery, will shift employment away from human delivery. But some of these displaced workers could find employment as a paramedic, who administers pre-hospital emergency medical care to patients with injuries or medical illnesses and transports them to hospitals for further care.

Helping workers make the transition will be one of the critical challenges of our time. It will require government and professional bodies to challenge themselves to think well beyond traditional career paths and compensation models. But building these pathways to our sector will help us attract and retain the right kind of workers we will need for the 2020s while providing a remedy to the challenges brought on by changing demographics in an age of disruption.

The RBC report offers a way forward. A national skills strategy for healthcare led by the provinces is a good step. A dashboard of public labour market information detailing the location of labour shortages across the Canadian healthcare sector would also help provide vital data for policymakers.

The creation and expansion of second-career bridge programs to attract professionals into healthcare is important to find ways to minimize years of additional schooling. There are also opportunities to create more work-integrated-learning opportunities in healthcare for workers in non-health disciplines, to inject new ideas and ways of working into the sector.

As with any plan, it’s important to start with your end destination, work backwards and check progress throughout your journey. In our experience, this vision is often shaped by a blend of insights and imagination. The same is true as we rethink healthcare in the 2020s. We must seize this opportunity to sustain and enhance our healthcare system as well as ensure our country remains prosperous for years to come.

Niranjan Vivekanandan is Vice-President, RBC Healthcare.