Interview, News

Interview: “The digital genie is out of the bottle, there’s no going back” Henrietta Mbeah-Bankas, NHSE, on digital education in the NHS

In a recent interview, we got chance to catch up with Henrietta Mbeah-Bankas, head of portfolio at NHSE, to find out more about her projects, programmes and priorities for 2024, a year after she joined us for a discussion at HTN: Now on innovation and training in the health workforce.

Current projects and areas of focus

We asked Henrietta to share some insight into her background and current role. Prior to moving into health education, Henrietta explained that she had trained as a mental health nurse, working in mental health in the hospital and in the community for over twelve years.

Previously holding the role of head of blended learning and digital literacy for Health Education England, the merger of NHS national organisations has seen Henrietta become head of portfolio for NHSE, a role incorporating blended learning, advance practice, allied health professions and pharmacy.

“With that shift, I’ve lost the digital literacy part of my role in one way, but not entirely, because I do strongly advocate for system partners to consider the digital literacy of their learners and of the workforce in everything else that I do,” Henrietta commented. “A lot of what I’ve done in the last ten years has been around digital, health education commissioning and policy, which has been an exciting addition to my career to say the least!”

At present, one of Henrietta’s main focuses lies in commissioning a blended learning programme for dental hygienists. With regards to digital health, another focus is on supporting the development of  guidance for psychological professionals to look at how technology can be utilised in delivering education.

“You cannot talk about such areas without the baseline digital literacy of learners,” she said. “Contrary to the popular assumption that all millennials are digitally literate, I always say: no, we need to assess and understand where they are at. We need to be able to support their literacy development throughout their training programmes’.”

Looking ahead

We asked Henrietta about the projects or programmes she is most excited about over the next 12 months around digital.

“Everything that we’re doing currently has some thread of digital, but a lot of our work looks at where digital plays a key role in making sure that our educators are using effective approaches when educating our future workforce,” said Henrietta, “because things are evolving all the time. We are in a world where people are hybrid working, and are utilising technology more and more to communicate, to work, to do lots of things. For us, it means everything we do in the future when it comes to other areas of commissioning work will have a strong feature of digital in there.”

Specifically, Henrietta noted aspirations to look at mental health nursing and learning disability nursing; how digital can support the NHS to attract people to this training; and how it can play a role in offering them flexibility for that training.

Is there a specific challenge that she would like to work towards over the next 12 months?

Henrietta shared: “One thing that we know helps with digital is having a focus on the people; digital upskilling is critical to that. But when you think about those people, it’s not just having the digital skills – there are also the processes that people have to go through in order to utilise those skills. Sometimes the processes we put into our working environments or education institutions make it almost impossible for people to utilise the skills we’ve equipped them with.”

Digital often gets viewed as ‘the other thing’, she added, but there is a need to “make sure that it is incorporated in everything we do”.

She added: “It’s key that we start looking at our entire education offering in terms of the whole curricula, and see where we’ve got opportunities to incorporate digital skills acquisition, digital health learning, and all the digital elements that our future workforce are going to need.”

Henrietta also highlighted the importance of considering access to digital technology, both from an individual and an institutional perspective, due to the “very real” existence of digital poverty.

“We can upskill people as much as we like, we can put it into our curriculum as much as we want; but if people haven’t got the technology or connectivity all of the digital skills, health learning, and flexibility being put into place, then it’s not going to work. An area I think we rarely talk about or look at is how we partner with commercial organisations and the voluntary sector to address some of these digital poverty issues, because I don’t think we can solve the problem on our own. It needs a ‘wider tackling’, and all hands on deck, which is definitely something for us to think about now.”

Progress

We moved on to discuss with Henrietta what sort of progress has been made toward digital upskilling and access over the last year. She stated that whilst progress has absolutely been happening, especially in terms of recognising baseline digital literacy within the curricula and assessing it at different points, it tends not to be fast enough, or to lack in consistency across the NHS.

“My worry sometimes is that it is happening in pockets; it’s not consistent, it’s not everywhere. That raises the issue of our learners having unwarranted variation. It’s OK for us to have variation in the way that things are done, but when some people are doing it and some are not at all, it makes it difficult for us to provide the same offering to our health and social care learners. There are some fantastic examples of practices undertaking this work, but there are other areas that probably haven’t even started on that journey yet. So there are some wide gaps in some areas. Lots of work needs to be done, and it needs to be done fast.”

Henrietta shared some further thoughts on the topic of digital literacy in health, including the need for collaboration to avoid “everybody trying to build the same thing 200 times over”, and instead create one good thing that can be built and then shared.

“Sometimes we’re a bit wary about whether things are going to happen or not, but there’s a lot of good will in the system to see change; and although it might not be happening as fast as we want it to, it is happening. If we’ve learnt anything from COVID, it’s that we can’t just go back to whatever ‘normal’ was before that; we’ve moved on, and there’s no going back. The digital genie is definitely out of the bottle, and we are not putting it back in.”

Henrietta also highlighted how the demands of learners and the workforce themselves are changing with regard to digital, with more frequent requests and expectations around things like flexible working and digital content.

“The expectations of our learners and our workforce are changing, and they are actually asking for these flexibilities, so the system will have to respond to that.”

We’d like to extend our thanks to Henrietta for taking the time out to catch up with us.

In another of our recent interviews, we sat down for a chat with Ricardo Baptista Leite about the potential and considerations for artificial intelligence, key learnings from his career and his thoughts on the digital health landscape in Portugal.

On education, NHS Education for Scotland has announced the launch of “paperless placements” for nursing students at the University of Dundee, thanks to a digital tool developed by the NES Technology Service in collaboration with the NES Nursing and Midwifery pre-registration and practice education team.