The fast-changing healthcare sector is set to see further evolution and upheaval in 2018, so staff will need to be prepared for action to ensure care quality standards are consistently upheld.
Most healthcare professionals would agree that the sector has been experiencing challenging circumstances in the last few years, with the inherent pressure that comes with this line of work exacerbated by broader political and economic factors beyond their control.
Evolving government policy, funding constraints and emerging public health issues have all led to significant upheaval within the medical field, and the opening months of 2018 have offered plenty of evidence to suggest that this rapid pace of change is likely to continue throughout this year and beyond.
As such, it's never been more important for healthcare workers and managers to stay abreast of the latest trends and developments within their industry, and to make sure they are doing everything they can to acquire the skills they need to adapt. Even against a backdrop of ongoing change, the need to ensure that care quality remains paramount is still constant, and that will be as true in 2018 as it has ever been.
2017 threw up a considerable number of questions and challenges for healthcare providers, and there has been little to suggest that 2018 will be much different in this respect.
Public health resources have been relatively constrained for a number of years, resulting in a push for greater efficiency and prudent cost-cutting measures as a means of making up the shortfall. These efforts will be more important than ever this year, as the fragile state of public finances continues to be exacerbated by issues such as an ageing population, the rising prevalence of chronic conditions requiring long-term management, and the spiralling obesity crisis.
Healthcare professionals will also need to pay close attention to the progress of the UK's Brexit negotiations to see how it will affect their access to skills from abroad, all while making sure their existing staff members are receiving the training they need to handle these changes.
Partly in response to these pressures, the healthcare sector is expected to accelerate its efforts to explore new and more effective models of care provision in 2018 - meaning all organisations will need to learn and adapt, lest they be left behind.
The government has been striving for several years to usher in a new era of better-integrated and more joined-up healthcare services, allowing acute care providers to work more closely with social care services, and handing more responsibilities to coordinators of community-based care. This remains an ongoing project, and will go hand-in-hand with renewed efforts to enhance mental health services.
Staff should also be aware of the growing realisation of the benefits that personalised care can provide, with more and more providers looking to offer patient-centric care models that deliver treatment based on the patient's specific needs, preferences and physical condition.
A key aspect of this transition to personalised care is the emergence of digital health solutions, which have been predicted to gain considerable traction during the year ahead.
Analysis from Deloitte has indicated that the UK market for digital health technology, valued at £2 billion in 2015, will grow to £2.9 billion by the end of this year, driven primarily by growing demand for mobile health apps. Patients are using these tools - as well as online patient portals, digital information kits and self-check-in kiosks - to take control of their own care, monitor their own conditions in real-time and ensure their health needs are being met.
All of these technologies will become even more prominent in 2018, as will telehealth solutions and new applications leveraging the potential of augmented and virtual reality. Healthcare workers need to be familiar with these tools and understand how they can best be used to improve the patient experience if they are to deliver a standard of care that meets expectations.
In recent years, the healthcare sector has been experiencing something of a brain drain, with many specialties finding it increasingly difficult to recruit or retain staff - a trend that is being exacerbated in the UK by the ongoing uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
In 2018, the government has committed to tackling this problem by upping its investment in hiring and training, while also moving to find a settlement that will safeguard the rights of talented EU workers within the sector. However, healthcare organisations are not merely waiting for these efforts to bear fruit, and are instead working proactively to address the skills gap in their own way.
This includes renewed efforts to build the skills base of their existing workforce, as well as investment in automation, whether that means robotic technology or analytics software to remove some of the need for manual work. As these technologies become more sophisticated, it is likely that the sector's reliance on them will increase.
It's worth remembering, however, that this level of dependence on digital technology is a double-edged sword, and will require healthcare bodies to take the issues of cyber security and data protection more seriously than ever.
This is especially pertinent in the wake of last year's high-profile WannaCry ransomware attack, which brought the NHS to a standstill for several days and resulted in thousands of operations being cancelled across the country. Although the NHS was far from the only victim of an attack that ultimately affected 74 countries, the chaos it caused within Britain's health service threatened lives and generated negative headlines around the world.
With the European General Data Protection Regulation coming into effect in May 2018, the impetus for healthcare professionals to get their act together when it comes to data security has never been greater - so it's vital that those in charge make sure they invest properly in learning and development to ensure they are ready to take on this responsibility.