A 2022 report prepared by the World Health Organization has deemed the situation in the healthcare sector in Europe as a "ticking time bomb," in particular stating that “all countries of the region face severe problems related to their health and care workforce.” Andrzej Rys, European Commission Director of Health Systems, sums up the challenge in the EU healthcare sector as the inability to deliver high quality care to all Europeans due to an insufficient health workforce, with the right skills and in the right places. According to him, there is currently an estimated shortage of nearly 1 million health workers in Europe. The shortage of staff in the healthcare sector is a concerning challenge which is felt by all EU member states. The aging of healthcare staff and the unexpected increase in younger people leaving the workforce due to burnout, ill health & general dissatisfaction deteriorates further the situation. Parallelly, there is a growing pressure on the healthcare system created by aging populations, growing urban communities, greater prevalence of chronic diseases, including such caused by the deteriorating environment, and the emergence of novel viruses, such as Covid-19.

In the educational sector, the interest of young people to pursue careers in healthcare is low with negative trends. Healthcare professions are exhausting with high risk to the practitioner's health. The remuneration is not always matching the scope of the work. Furthermore, there is a visible devaluation of the respect and prestige such professions hold in the public opinion, which is a major change from the previous generation, when healthcare professionals were highly respected and valued by the general public.

To address these issues, it is clear that serious reforms need to be made in the healthcare sector but also on societal level, starting from vocational education through higher education and professional institutions. Some of these reforms cannot be carried out by the educational sector but require political involvement and policy frameworks. Other, however, can be successfully initiated and implemented by higher education institutions. For example, HEI can contribute to the improvement of the interconnectivity and communication between different healthcare professionals, and can modernize their curriculum to improve cooperation with professional and accreditation institutions and secondary & adult education. They can also develop additional competences in graduates, such as communication and collaboration, digital, green, and evidence-based practice skills. The development of healthcare professionals’ communication skills and evidence-based care vis-à-vis patients would directly contribute to the improving of the positive perception of the healthcare sector by the public and increase job satisfaction. Higher education can also increase its efforts to liaise with school teachers and students, providing information and promoting occupations in healthcare.

The project's overall purpose is to promote and strengthen the interconnectedness of higher education through cross sectoral transnational cooperation and healthcare curriculum modernization. This will be carried out through the achievement of 3 general objectives:

  1. To strengthen the professional healthcare, digital and green competences of educators in higher education and trainers working with practicing professionals through educator training & expertise exchange,
  2. To improve students' employability and positive professional identity through the development & piloting of a joint course and learning and teaching materials on contemporary healthcare challenges.
  3. To make higher education more interconnected and inclusive on local and EU level through cross-sectoral and transnational partnership, and the offering of more blended and flexible forms of education. All objectives will contribute to the better integration of higher education institutions in local communities, and improve their social and environmental footprint on local and EU level.

The project will produce the following concrete results:

  • improved healthcare, green and digital competences of 15 educators (14 in higher education & 1 working with practicing professionals),
  • improved employability and knowledge of contemporary healthcare challenges of 40 undergraduate students (10 students x 4 higher healthcare education institutions) & 25 practicing healthcare professionals,
  • created blended model of learning in higher education through cross-sectoral transnational cooperation among 5 higher education institutions, a regional healthcare authority, a nurses' association & a vocational school.

The set-up objectives and the expected results directly contribute to the selected project priorities. All 3 objectives will support the inter-connectivity of higher education, the development of its digital and green capabilities, and the development of blended innovative learning & teaching practices. The planned activities will increase the connectivity between the involved partners providing an opportunity for in-person and online cooperation and sharing of human resources on the development of joint and innovative educational content. Educators and institutions will pool their knowledge and expertise. Focus will be placed on the exchange of expertise in healthcare, however the project will also support the digital and green capabilities of the involved partners. Digital capabilities will be developed through interdisciplinary cooperation and the involvement of the IT Faculty of the University of Maribor which will support the development of digital educational materials and tools, and through the development of the digital skills of students and staff. Green capabilities will be strengthened through the development of educational materials. The course and educational materials developed during the project will include topics related to the development of digital and green skills.

The project will unite the partners' efforts to modernize their curricula by introducing a new course and educational content, and adopting a more learner-oriented and flexible approach to healthcare education. Developed outputs will be aligned with labour market and community needs. They will also provide for flexibility and independent, competency-based learning contributing to lifelong learning and providing opportunities for students and practicing professionals to independently increase their knowledge and competences. The project is thus innovative in a vocational and a social sense. We have researched the Erasmus + Project Results Platform in detail, and there is an abundance of projects in healthcare which reflects properly the importance of the sector for quality of living in the EU. They are typically targeted at ameliorating the situation of minority groups (immigrants, LGBT, people with chronic diseases), building capacity in certain niche areas, or promoting the adoption of new technologies, such as virtual reality simulations. Our project is aligned with what has been achieved so far, yet offers a more comprehensive approach to healthcare, satisfying simultaneously healthcare educational institutions’ and communities’ needs. It addresses 4 contemporary healthcare issues identified by the members of the project team, but also by EU institutions, as crucial for the reform of the sector - evidence-based practice, digitalization and digital safety, soft skills development, and environmental impact. The developed educational outputs will thus present state of- the-art knowledge. The involvement of stakeholders outside of higher education (a regional health authority, a nurses' association & a vocational secondary school) and from other disciplines (the University of Maribor's IT Faculty), and the development of outputs for independent learning which are practice-oriented, open and free for use, present a modern and innovative model of professional training.