Twenty-first-century healthcare is replete with the unstoppable exponential growth of technology and innovation. From EMRs and medication-dispensing robots to digitally networked bedside devices and the inevitable emergence of medical augmented reality, the ability to adapt to new technologies is crucial for any individual seeking a sustainable career in medicine, nursing, and the broader healthcare spectrum.

Will certain groups of healthcare workers fall by the wayside? When some individuals adapt and others fall behind, will healthcare technology Darwinism be at work? And can those wishing to catch up vis-à-vis technology successfully do so and remain competitive?

Introducing the Digital Native and Digital Immigrant

In 2001, author Mark Prensky published an article introducing the world to the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant.” Coming at the turn of the century, Prensky presciently noted that those born with digital technologies almost literally in their hands would be the members of society who move us collectively forward into a tech-centric future due to their apparently preternatural gifts for navigating new software, hardware, apps, and technologies.

Digital natives are identified as those individuals born into a world of digital tech and media saturation. While research continues to assess the impact of maturing in such an environment, the fact remains that digital natives were handed these tools by prior generations.

Members of older cohorts (which Prensky dubbed digital immigrants) are those who did not grow up in a world steeped in these technologies but have learned to incorporate them into their lives with varying degrees of enthusiasm, skill, and success. Even older millennials (those born during most of the 1980s) are considered digital immigrants since cell phones and personal computers were not ubiquitous until their later adolescence.

Some older individuals have been known to cast aspersions on younger workers’ different methods of learning, interacting, and communicating, but the truth is that those older workers are no longer in the majority. In a paper published in 2014, it was recognized that that year was when more digital natives were practicing medicine than digital immigrants. Thus, the tide was turning long before 2020.

Are Digital Natives More Valuable Employees?

Some research disagrees with Prensky’s original assertions and argues that digital natives are no more adept at technology than their digital immigrant peers. To wit:

It’s unclear and unproven whether digital natives actually do differ in their cognitive abilities from digital immigrants. What is clear, however, is that this idea feeds into three widespread misconceptions about Millennials:

MYTH 1: Digital natives possess inferior social skills or are more likely to avoid personal interaction in favor of digital interaction.

MYTH 2: Digital natives are much better at multitasking than digital immigrants.

MYTH 3: Digital natives have natural instincts about how to use or fix computers and other digital products.

Our findings (and other research studies) suggest that all these assertions are false.

For many positions in the clinical realm, academia, research, and other areas of professional pursuit, facility with computers and software are a plus. A number of employers request or require that candidates be conversant with commonly-used software, including popular EMRs such as Epic. A job candidate who can claim Epic super-user status and avid use of tools such as Google Drive, PowerPoint, or Excel may indeed seem more attractive than a candidate thus lacking.

Evidence shows that, while some digital immigrants may struggle with certain tech interfaces, many have adapted and can thrive; and, as noted above, their younger peers may not always have a clear edge. Conversely, other research disagrees, demonstrating that the average 14-year-old far outpaces the average 45-year-old in tech-savviness.

In this rapidly changing world, many digital natives must recognize that, in order to remain professionally competitive, they need to consistently pivot as tech evolves over time. In short, being tech-savvy in the healthcare job marketplace has become an important skill set to publicize loud and clear on a resume or online professional profile.

And today’s 14-year-olds? They will one day find themselves in school studying medicine, physical therapy, or speech language pathology, and their career path will most certainly be paved with technology.

Digital Natives: The Demographic Future is Certain

If there is one thing for certain, it’s that a time will come when all medical and healthcare professionals will be digital natives. After all, as baby boomers and Gen Xers age out of the workforce, their particular brand of digital immigrant professionalism will be a thing of the past, except for older millennials who themselves are now beginning to enter their 40s and still have a few decades of employment ahead of them prior to retirement. Still, those workers will be in a rapidly shrinking minority.

This demographic shift towards a healthcare workforce comprised of 100% digital natives will be a phenomenon to track over time.

Will the longitudinal research reveal that digital natives have more difficulty with company loyalty, managing relationships, or respecting authority? Will the legacy of digital immigrants be that of generations who adapted well as the medical workplace changed and technology became central to success? Will we eventually see that technology was an equalizer that left fewer healthcare workers behind than some originally predicted?

The forward march of healthcare technology is beyond deniability, and how certain cohorts of medical professionals adapt to this ongoing revolution will be a fascinating case study for the history of 21st-century healthcare.