CRISPR-Gas9 is a revolutionary gene-editing technique that has scored breakthroughs in combating muscular dystrophy in lab mice. It could be a game changer in the prevention of disease in humans.
If it makes the leap to clinical use, says The Economist, “human genetic engineering will truly have come of age.”
So why did this biotech achievement pop up as a topic in a conference on modelling the future of work? It underlines the blend of boundless promise and health-leadership challenges that spin out of technology breakthroughs like CRISPR.
“We are in a golden age of medicine,” says Jason Fischer, a pediatrician and technology champion at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, speaking at the DeGroote School of Business’ Digital Leadership Summit.
“We are just ripe for disruption. You’re waiting for something to fall that will change everything,” says Fischer, speaking on a panel sponsored by the Health Leadership Academy, a collaborative effort of McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Business, Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, and Faculty of Health Sciences.
But like any field on the edge of disruption, healthcare is also bracing for upheaval in the model of work. Ethics consultant John Dalla Costa underlined the challenge of being digitally interconnected while often working in physical isolation. Dalla Costa, a keynote presenter at the Health Leadership Academy’s Emerging Health Leaders Program on the ethics of health innovation, captured a theme of the entire summit – managing the paradox of hyper-connection and disconnection.
Summit speakers described the road ahead in the health workplace – for physicians to be grounded in informatics and data science, for medical schools to teach the new digital technologies in addition to traditional medicine, and for organizations to hire people as much for their algorithmic understanding as for their medical talent.
Yet for young people entering the profession today, there is not nearly enough training in what their future jobs will look like, says Fischer, recently appointed Physician Information Technology Lead for SickKids’ Project Horizon, described as “an opportunity to imagine and plan for the future of pediatric healthcare.”
In their training and residency, young doctors’ heads are immersed in books about anatomy, physiology and medical science – all essential grounding – but not how to interact with the new technologies. At SickKids, he says, new physicians are being encouraged to gain digital skills and become prepared for this shift – which will gather force as machine learning and virtual reality become standard tools.
It also means mastering the skills of leadership in an environment where “people” reporting to you are not always people. “Some of your employees frankly may have to be robots,” says Kathy Woods, a partner and national lead for Deloitte’s leadership consulting practice in Canada.
Woods made the point that in the wake of all the digital advances, leaders must deal with how the workforce “feels” about the cascade of change around it. Bosses need to think about leading employees who are not located next door, but are still hungry for a lot of personal interaction. “As leaders we really need to step up,” she says, reinforcing Dalla Costa’s message.
Woods sees three huge shifts looming in the healthcare work environment: We are already in the midst of a vast cognitive shift that breeds ambiguity and complexity. We also need to be ready for a behavioural shift with new forms of interaction – how we relate to each other – and that has to be reflected the storytelling of leaders.
The third and most important shift is emotional, and with that comes new ethical and engagement challenges. Leaders have to be confident and comfortable that they don’t have all the answers, having probably never worked in areas where their employees have to function. They must move to a new level of authenticity, which is “important on steroids,” she says, and that connects directly to the maintenance of trust.
The good news is that in the healthcare system, the technological changes could make an impact in dramatically positive ways – for example, in the ability of stressed-out medical practitioners to focus once more on bedside manner.
The healthcare conversation unfolded as a striking paradox – a future with infinite promise tinged with the vulnerable feelings of people who must adapt to it. Marwan Sati, an IBM researcher working with the Watson computer, acknowledged he is one of the disruptors. Watson, for example, can read the 3,000 research papers written on oncology every year, turning them into a tool for understanding rather than an amorphous swamp of indigestible information.
Yet despite the force of such innovation, there exists a sense of fearfulness. The antidote, speakers agreed, is for leaders to develop a stronger narrative to communicate realistic hope in face of understandable human uncertainty.