It remains to be seen when COVID-19 will finally be in the rearview mirror. Each day there are fresh headlines about new waves of infections popping up around the world. My physician said he expects vaccine boosters to become a permanent part of the annual flu shot regimen.
The healthcare industry has been under nonstop pressure since February 2020. What began as an explosion of patient demand for urgent care resources, ventilators, and ICU beds evolved into multiple, regional infection surges that continue to test the resiliency of the healthcare system to this day.
While all things COVID-19 were dominating headlines and hospital wards, there are millions of people that have other conditions that still require treatment. Many patients opted to defer care, which has resulted in huge backlogs for those seeking treatment.
Social distancing practices and virtual tools helped get some level of “routine” healthcare going again, but reopening has come with the added burden of additional safety protocols and administrative overhead. The pandemic has increased demand and added processes for an industry that has been throttled with rules and complexity for decades.
Heroics Giving Way to Mass Resignations
The efforts of the frontline healthcare workers have been well documented and rightfully celebrated. As we approach the second anniversary of COVID-19, the toll on all those workers is manifesting into a serious problem — leaving their jobs in droves at a time when we need them more than ever.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare employment has dropped by 524,000 since the onset of the pandemic. Hospital systems are experiencing mass resignations as burned-out doctors, nurses, and administrative teams throw in the towel and move on to brighter pastures in a completely different career.
I recently spoke to Dr. Ara Feinstein, a trauma surgeon and physician executive at Banner Health, who described the situation from a doctor’s perspective. He said, “Healthcare has always depended on providers to do the right thing which was based on the premise that caregivers would willingly step up and take care of patients, so nobody gets left behind. You saw this in action during the first surge. Now, people are pretty exhausted and it’s hard to fill shifts which is a sign of how tired people are.”
Heroics can only last for so long. The reality is that the healthcare industry has been facing a capacity shortage reality for a long time, well before things like surges, or Delta, or fully vaccinated became part of the world’s collective vocabulary.
The pre-pandemic “surge” that everyone saw coming was the inevitable fact that 73 million baby boomers are aging into the heavy healthcare use phase of their lives. A few years ago, Pew Research projected that 10,000 men and women would be retiring each day which would double Medicare and Medicaid costs by 2020. Well, 2020 happened and if there was the beginning of a Baby Boomer Medicare surge, nobody even noticed it. It was a blip in the context of dealing with a once-in-a-generation global pandemic.
A worker shortage in the context of a massive increase in patient demand in is the ultimate example of a perfect storm.
Unfortunately, replacing hundreds of thousands of highly skilled workers through hiring will take time – a lot of it. For the clinical teams especially, leaders must find ways to lighten the load, or we can expect to see more attrition in roles that will be very difficult to fill. The path forward must be digital.
Advanced Patient Engagement with a Digital Workforce
Technology is the key to addressing the challenges that healthcare is facing. The industry has invested heavily in IT over the past few decades but still lags other industries. The shortcomings are especially apparent when it comes to engaging patients digitally. While many of us have successfully booked an international vacation on an iPad, there’s nothing close to that experience for healthcare. This needs to change.
Technology continues to advance rapidly which offers a ray of hope for industries that must deal with complexity, administrative overhead, and a broad demographic spectrum of customers (patients). People use digital tools for banking, shopping, and travel because it offers a radical improvement over the way things used to be. Technology has become progressively simple and powerful.
Language is gradually becoming the user interface between humans and machines. Instead of just enabling interactions between people through email, texting, or social networks, we are now interacting with the technology itself. That’s a profound development that will lower the technology engagement bar for everyone. It passes the “can grandma use it?” test.
Friction is the enemy of wide-scale technology adoption. IT designers usually overestimate what consumers — the masses – are willing to put up with. Healthcare has not yet solved this. While 85% of consumers own smartphones, less than 10% of patients regularly use mobile apps from their providers. That digital patient engagement number needs to increase significantly.
The simplicity of interacting with a digital assistant that uses language to guide patients through process complexity is potentially groundbreaking – especially in healthcare.
Healthcare is beginning to embrace this new modality. Rather than requiring people to download apps and set up user accounts, Conversational AI engages patients through simple, interactive messaging and helps them navigate healthcare. It doesn’t replace doctors, nurses, and other workers, but it augments them with unlimited conversational horsepower. More importantly, the digital assistants do a lot of the work, rather than asking patients to do it themselves.
The good news is that Conversational AI is maturing rapidly and we’re seeing examples of success in healthcare. Banner Health deployed conversational AI to virtualize the waiting room experience across 300 clinics. Memorial Health uses smart digital assistants to deliver COVID-19 test results to tens of thousands of patients every month. Genentech is deploying digital navigators that help get patients from disadvantaged communities into clinical trials. Examples like these, deployed and working at industry leaders pave the path for others. It’s no longer a matter of IF but rather WHEN conversational technology becomes the norm across all aspects of healthcare.
We have a large, vital industry beginning to break under the pressures created by a global pandemic, and we must deal with the labor shortage that will likely only get worse. At the same time, there’s a new class of technology that provides a level of engagement scale and process automation that is so desperately needed.
There may be a perfect storm brewing, but the path forward is something the healthcare industry has always needed to get behind, pandemic or not. It’s precisely what the doctor ordered.
About Greg Kefer
Greg Kefer currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer at Lifelink Systems and he’s responsible for all marketing, strategy and the healthcare chatbot technology company. Previously he was VP of Marketing at Infor Corporation, supporting a business unit focused on global supply chains and commerce automation for large enterprises. Greg was also VP of corporate marketing at GT Nexus, a cloud supply chain platform provider where he led all marketing and communications functions as the company grew from the startup stage through a successful $700 million acquisition in 2015. Greg started his career in the advertising agency business and has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Oregon.