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Research Briefs | October 26, 2020

The Impact of New Technology on the Healthcare Workforce

Ari Bronsoler, Joseph Doyle, John Van Reenen


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Dramatic improvements in information technology have the potential to transform healthcare delivery, and a key question is how such changes will affect the healthcare workforce of the future. In this brief, we present the state of knowledge of the effects of health information technology on the workforce. We first lay out the rapidly changing healthcare landscape due to the greater availability and use of information and communication technology (ICT) followed by a description of the evolution of employment, wages, and education across the wide variety of occupations in the healthcare sector since 1980. The healthcare sector has outperformed the rest of the economy and has proven resilient to the multiple downturns over the last four decades, although some groups have done much better than others. Next, we review the literature on the effects of ICT on productivity in terms of patient health outcomes and resource use, as well as the effects on healthcare expenditure. We find that there is evidence of a positive effect of ICT (e.g., especially electronic health records) on clinical productivity, but (i) it takes time for these positive effects to materialize; and (ii) there is much variation in the impact, with many organizations seeing no benefits. Looking at the drivers of adoption, we find that the role of workers is critical, especially physicians’ attitudes and skills. Privacy laws, fragmentation, and weak competition are also causes of slow adoption. There is very little quantitative work that investigates directly the impact of new technology on workers’ jobs, skills, and wages, but what there is suggests no substantial negative effects. Our own analysis finds no evidence of negative effects looking at aggregate data and hospital-level event studies. These findings are consistent with studies outside of healthcare, which stress the importance of complementary factors (such as management practices and skills) in determining the success of ICT investments. We conclude that management initiatives to increase the skills of workers will be required if the healthcare workforce and society more generally are to substantially benefit from the adoption of these powerful tools.