6 Big Benefits of Applying Automation to Healthcare

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Applying Automation to Healthcare_Is the Phrase Patient Engagement Overused

James Dias, CEO at Wellbe

James Dias, Founder & CEO at Wellbe shares six big benefits that can be realized by applying automation to healthcare for overall cost reduction and efficiency.

Three out of four hospital and health systems CEOs cite overall cost reduction and efficiency as one of their top two financial priorities, HealthLeaders recently reported. With the healthcare industry continually looking to cut costs and waste and improve efficiency and throughput, automation of manual tasks can be an important part of a strategy for performance improvement.

Automation is defined as the use of control systems and information technologies to reduce the need for human work in the production of goods and services. The introduction of the assembly line at Ford Motor Company in 1913 is often cited as one of the first forms of automation. With this innovation Ford achieved a dramatic reduction in the time to produce a car from 12 hours down to 1.5 hours!

Now automation surrounds us every day in our lives, including automated teller machines (ATMs), Redbox DVD rentals, self-checkout at the grocery store, cellphone-controlled thermostats, auto park assist in vehicles, and many more routine activities managed by technology. Despite its use for years in banking, retail and other industries, healthcare has lagged behind in its use of automation. The recent pressure from healthcare reform and increased competition is driving a heightened interest to reduce costs and eliminate waste in healthcare delivery. And that has brought the adoption of automation to the spotlight.

An aging population along with more people in the healthcare system will require more care, and staffing levels in healthcare will not be able to keep up. In the July/August 2009 issue of Health Affairs, Dr. Peter Buerhaus and coauthors found that despite the current easing of the nursing shortage due to the recession, the U.S. nursing shortage is projected to grow to 260,000 registered nurses by 2025. A shortage of this magnitude would be twice as large as any nursing shortage experienced in this country since the mid-1960s. The looming shortage of RNs demands efficiency and the elimination of redundant work and manual tasks.

John Dragovits, chief financial officer of Dallas-based Parkland Health & Hospital System, told HealthLeaders in 2012: “If you look at an average hospital’s financial statement, 50%-60% of their expenses are salaries and benefits. By definition healthcare is an inflationary model, but it’s exacerbated by the fact that everyone wants to hire more people rather than think about how they can live with fewer people… The challenge in this industry has always been getting people excited and intrigued and rewarded for looking at things innovatively and using technology to do things quicker and cheaper.”

Once the industry transitions to population health, automation goes from a “nice to have” to a “must have.” There are not enough care providers to continuously monitor and check in with large patient populations for this new model of care. A report by the Institute for Health Technology Transformation says, “Automation makes population health management feasible, scalable and sustainable.”

Automation is often linked to a negative connotation in association with the loss of jobs in manufacturing industries. When automation and robotics were first introduced into the pharmacy, some feared it would be the end of pharmacists, with robots taking the place of human workers. However, ultimately it let them get rid of medication counting tasks that required little cognitive value, and instead let them focus on more clinically-relevant work for productive and rewarding work time.

Critics also point out that automation can’t replace doctors and nurses. And they are correct. However, automation can be blended in to their workflows to make a wide swath of care delivery processes much more efficient and to improve productivity. Patient engagement, for example, can get a big boost from automated check-ins and reminders.

Here are 6 big benefits that can be realized by applying automation to healthcare:

1. Labor Savings
Using automation to replace manually intensive tasks that are better done by machine can be a big time saver. It doesn’t have to eliminate employees, but rather elevate them into higher-functioning roles that make use of the clinical expertise they have been trained for.

2. Improved Quality and Consistency
Automation tools are not subject to human error or fatigue, so they can help provide a consistent basis of care activities. A Texas hospital study found that greater automation in the areas of medical records, order entry, and decision support appeared to result in a reduction in deaths, complications and cost.

3. Reduced Waste
Use of paper and spreadsheets and other workarounds needed for an overfull workload can lead to a lot of waste. For example, rather than playing phone tag with a discharged patient in the free minutes between hospital nursing duties, automation can help get nurses and patients connected more efficiently.

4. Increased Predictability of Outcomes
When patients follow a standardized care path supported by automation, it is more likely they will stay on track towards predicted outcomes. Additionally, automation can help detect when a patient has deviated from the recommended care plan so the care team can intervene.

5. Higher Throughput
A nurse supported by automation tools can handle a larger population of patients at one time. Instead of scaling up and down your headcount as patient volumes grow and shrink, an automated platform can scale flexibly to address groups of all sizes.

6. Data-Driven Insights
Technology used to automate processes can also deliver a wealth of data in a continuous feedback loop that can be used for performance improvement and optimization. With every cycle, automation systems can collect data on how the process is working and use that information to improve the program. This way it improves on itself over time, becoming even more efficient, more accurate and more helpful to the team’s workload.

When looking for good areas to apply automation in your healthcare environment, a standardized, repeatable process is the first thing to look for. Within hospital walls, a common procedure that is performed on a large population of patients on a routine basis, like joint replacements, is a prime area to apply automation tools. Ask yourself this question: Which program would you rather have?

Program A:

  • 3 full-time nurse navigators working the phone 10 hours a week with lots of spreadsheets to move patients through their episodes of care
  • Very little quantified feedback data
  • Patients that are highly dependent on your staff for everything in the course of their treatments and care

Program B:

  • Patients using self-service tools to manage their care from home, with alerts when they go off track
  • Two half-time nurse navigators (1 FTE) working off a risk-based, prioritized patient list
  • On-demand actionable feedback to see how your program is working in real time

Between programs A and B, automation is what makes the difference. So the next time you’re ready to tackle a new process and realize you need to hire 3 more FTEs to support it, first do a gut check and see if there’s a better way to do it through automation. 

James Dias is the Founder & CEO at Wellbe where he leads innovations program to empower people and providers with new tools to improve health. He is also the co-inventor of the Patient Guidance System.

  • RN

    This article is the epitome of the notion of “good on paper.” In practice, healthcare requires more than having a “machine” do the work. The extent of automation allowing for healthcare providers to care for more patients in slim and nil, and infringes on most basic safety practices. Perhaps some time spent observing how healthcare actually works in person rather than formulating ways to fix it from behind a desk would be more practical in the implementation of the farcical solution of automation.

  • Ashwin L

    Nice article and great articulation James. Totally agree with your point – Automation can’t replace workforce, but it can blend into workflows to increase efficiency.

    In your opinion, what are some of the processes that can be automated at a hospital to ensure better productivity?

  • brookecmartin

    there are many touch points in the patient journey for treatment and all have different set of process flows and outcomes that are good and bad. All process need to be examined from time to time and look for inefficiencies and see what can change.. either on the paper side or the EHR.

  • Holy moly

    interesting piece – from a nursing perspective, automation could herald efficiencies in very bureaucratic administration tasks that while necessary, take us away from the bedside and our patients.

    I cannot remember the exact numbers but objective studies of nursing practice, via time sheets and monitoring on wards – show that a lot of time is spent administering medication and making referrals (in the NHS).

    I’d hope that AI/Automation could be applied here.

    I think as with all new technologies and working methods, we stand at a crossroads – if ‘efficiency’ is understood in a capitalist sense, cutting front line staff rather than liberating time for them (to care in this example) is a real danger as has been demonstrated in other industries.

  • NDC3

    “Critics also point out that automation can’t replace doctors and nurses. And they are correct.”

    No they aren’t. Today yes, but within the next 10 years this could completely change if there is a pioneering leader open to change. Machine learning software is already demonstrated to be more effective in identifying lung cancer, brain cancer, and rare developmental diseases than doctors. Doctors are flawed and fallible and necessarily slow in their uptake of additional studies while practicing. Not even mentioning that medical mistakes are pegged as the 3rd leading cause of death in America.

    If the quality is not there and the salaries are exorbitant on state and federal budgets, it is only a matter of time before doctors in diagnostic areas are supplemented and eventually replaced by the cheap and more effective predictive software.

    but Healthcare is mired in entrenched interests and castle building, so you cannot underestimate the human factor holding the whole industry back. What CEO with an MD will purposely make his degree less prestigious or necessary? I assume this change will have to be led by one maverick and then when budgets cannot support the system anymore, a mandate will have to come from state or federal level.

    I could be completely wrong, feel free to disagree, it’s an open discussion.