Evolving Skill Sets Required by Medical Practitioners – The Soft(er) Side

Vital Soft Skills Healthcare Professionals Need to Deliver Quality Care
Cross Country Nurses
January 13, 2020 09:33 AM (GMT-04:00)

In our last article, we explored the technical – or hard – skills required for healthcare professionals in a digital future. Here, we delve into not-so-technical skills that have arguably become even more critical to the delivery of quality healthcare. While the term “soft skills” is a common one, it is our belief that the competencies and skills we address here are anything but “soft.” On the contrary, these non-technical skills deliver hard results when it comes to patient health and outcomes.

“Amid the growing focus on artificial intelligence, automation and robotics and the impact these technologies will have on the healthcare environment, it is easy to overlook the importance of soft skills,” says Hank Drummond, PhD, RN, Vice President and Chief Clinical Officer at Cross Country Healthcare. “However, we believe soft skills such as, creative thinking, problem solving, analytical skills and critical thinking will become even more vital to delivering high quality care.”

In a digital future, soft skills reign supreme.

Many futurists and scholars point to a growing importance of soft skills even as the future becomes more digitized. In fact, accompanying the adoption of advanced technologies into the healthcare workplace will be an increase in the need for workers with finely-tuned social and emotional skills – skills that machines are a long way from mastering. According to a recent McKinsey report, between 2016 and 2030, demand for social and emotional skills will grow across all industries by 26 percent in the United States.1

The demand for higher cognitive skills – specifically, complex information processing and critical thinking, will grow by 19 percent by 2030 in the U.S.2 We would argue this assertion is even more true within the healthcare environment. After all, healthcare delivery has always been, and will always be, centered on the very human patient – requiring more human skills, such as empathy, decision-making and mindful listening.

“Human-centered technologies will no doubt simplify processes and allow nurses and medical practitioners to devote more time to the bedside, where they can listen to patient stories, build trusted relationships and deliver better, more personalized care,” says Drummond. “So, as we continue to embrace new technologies and evolve the digital skills of healthcare practitioners, we must also begin using these technologies to restore human connections by dedicating more time to critical soft skills.”

As we look to the future, there are two crucial cognitive-based competencies that cannot be ignored in order to build an effective, capable healthcare workforce.

The Vital Sign We Overlook but Cannot Ignore.

In the very near future of healthcare, many of our daily vital signs will be monitored and logged using technology tools, including chatbots, wearables, home monitoring devices and smart tools. In fact, in 2015 there were about 15.4 billion connected devices. According to IHS Markit, this number will grow to 30.7 billion in 2020 and 75.4 billion by 2025.2 Soon, we’ll be using smart cups that measure water intake, taking digital pills that interact with our phones and sleeping on smart mattresses that monitor sleep patterns.

As our vital signs are more often taken via smart technologies, there is one measurement that is too often overlooked but that must become a key skill of clinicians in the digital future – story gathering. According to Patricia Liehr, PhD RN, Associate Dean for Nursing Research and Scholarship and Schmidt Distinguished Professor at Florida Atlantic University, “The human story is a health story in the broadest sense. As healthcare continues to meld with technology, it becomes even more vital for caregivers to become skilled in intentional dialogue between themselves and patients. For the stories shared by patients relative to their circumstance is an opportunity for caregivers to gather information and data about the health challenge the person is experiencing.”

The idea of story is not new to nursing. In fact, nursing’s story roots date back to Nightingale (1860) who passionately promoted the importance of listening to the patient, stating “He feels what a convenience it would be, if there were any single person to whom he could speak simply and openly... to whom he could express his wishes and directions.”

“Even though I believe patient storytelling is a vital sign just as important as blood pressure, temperature or lab values,” Liehr says, “most caregivers don’t actually address it in that way. As a result, story evidence gets disregarded when in fact, it is integral to quality care.”

Critical Thinking Skills Imperative to Future of Healthcare Delivery.

Critical thinking skills have always been important in the caregiving field because they are used to prioritize and make key decisions that can save lives. However, as the healthcare delivery becomes increasingly complex and digitized, an even higher degree of critical thinking and emotional intelligence – the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically3 – will be required.

“In addition to high-level critical thinking skills, healthcare also requires nurses and other clinicians to have emotional intelligence or EI,” says Safiya George, PhD, Dean of FAU’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing. “This combination of high-level executive function required for critical thinking and the healthy and mature affective cognition required for EI is a hallmark of most nursing care and critical for effective healthcare delivery.” 

While many educational institutions recognize the need to develop critical thinking skills alongside practical skills, such as dressing a wound or taking vitals, there have been a number of challenges they’ve faced. For instance, most nursing school programs have limited access to clinical space for students to gain bedside experience that would foster critical thinking skills. In addition, the stakes for learning how to think critically are incredibly high in healthcare, as patient lives are at risk when students are practicing on them – yet, without the learned critical thinking ability, nurses are unable to provide quality care.

However, as the need for critical thinking development increases with digitization, the boon of technological advancements is also providing an effective solution to these challenges – simulation, artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR).

Given that applying critical thinking based on what caregivers have learned is fundamental, bringing all of the components of a care environment first-hand without the risk of patient safety is paramount. Using AI and VR, applications can replicate the care environment while eliminating the biggest risk of development critical thinking skills. They allow students and practitioners the freedom to make the wrong decision and to evaluate what to do next time.

As practitioners and students seek opportunities to build or enhance the critical thinking skills needed for the future, the good news is VR and AI are already being used to train medical professionals in greater numbers. In fact, one study found that 93% of radiologists trained through VR technology were more confident in diagnosing splenic artery aneurysms. Fortunately, current predictions state the value of VR in the medical field will grow as much as 30 times over the next five years alone.3


  1. McKinsey Global Institute, Skill Shift Automation and the Future of the Workforce, May 2018
  2. IHS Markit, https://ihsmarkit.com/industry/telecommunications.html
  3. TalentSmart, https://www.talentsmart.com/products/emotional-intelligence-2.0/
  4. Association for Talent Development, Healthcare Jobs 2.0: The Future of Healthcare and Tech, 2019

Bookmark and Share

Real Talk
"CCN has changed the way I look for and find jobs. It's as easy as looking and clicking on my phone. It’s a snap!" - Bob RN Columbus