AI-driven software automation brings sweeping change to healthcare industry

By Chuck Whinney / Special to Healthcare Facilities Today
July 29, 2019

New technology, driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), enables hospitals and health systems to continuously improve operational processes and business intelligence (BI). The result is creation of new business models, reconfiguration of labor-intensive processes, and elimination of costly manual, paper-driven workflows that do not add value for stakeholders or improve outcomes for patients.

But, this is only the beginning. The future holds even more dynamic changes for automating tedious processes, streamlining redundant tasks and speeding well-informed decision-making. Organizations need to get on board now, to remain competitive and comply with the changing expectations and mandates. Those that resist modernizing will find it difficult to keep pace and remain relevant in this fast-changing industry.

The current state of automation

Today, many healthcare organizations are using some levels of software automation to perform complex tasks, from collecting financial data from different technology systems to speeding transactions like ordering supplies and managing staffing. Software automation is being used for business processes as well as operational tasks that relate to clinical care and the patient experience. But is it enough?

The need for modernization is becoming urgent. This is a critical turning point in healthcare. While other industries such as manufacturing were forced to cut costs and improve productivity during the recent recession, healthcare has been slow to adopt sweeping new IT capabilities. This is changing with the passage of the Affordable Care Act and new regulatory demands. Now, hospitals and health systems must overhaul inefficient processes if they hope to grow revenue, reduce costs, and stay relevant.

What’s next?

Modern software solutions are now incorporating AI and ML to continuously improve and refine processes. The systems learn from user feedback and ongoing input to sharpen the focus on successful tactics and set higher standards, continually focusing on data-centric insights. Forward-thinking hospitals and health systems are learning to use digital transformation to reach next-level efficiencies.

BI-driven automation is sometimes called robotic process automation (RPA), a buzzword recently coined. The term is evolving, however, as it implies that only robots use AI and ML, which is far from accurate.  Software automation is a more accurate term, reflective of where the technology is being applied as it blends interoperability with data science.

For example, with software automation organizations can build business processes that organize workflows according to business rules. The technology can follow the human-defined parameters and automatically take actions, such as approving purchase orders that meet guidelines, routing approvals to the appropriate departments, and adjusting available inventory levels, and replenishing supplies as needed to maintain minimum stock levels. The routine business tasks can be automated, providing quicker response than human review and approval. Automation reduces the amount of time personnel spend at tasks that have minimal value to stakeholders or influence on patient outcome.

The automation is not meant to replace humans, but to free up the workforce to perform more advanced tasks, like creative problem solving, patient empathy and education, engagement with partnering organizations and suppliers, diligence on controlling costs, and attentive focus on clinical best practices.

Objectives of continuous improvement

With software automation, people can focus on their most important projects and tasks, including these three important goals:

1. Transition to a more efficient, paper-free system. Software automation helps organizations take that critical step away from paper-based, manual processes and create effective, standardized practices. Healthcare organizations still rely on paper to perform many functions. Those manual interventions have a significant amount of non–value added activity associated with them that becomes costly.  

2. Identify and quickly reengineer ineffective processes. Software automation provides a measurement tool and a way to improve over time. It can track how long a process takes, pinpoint the amount of time spent on each step, and provide real metrics. This allows business users to gather facts, reconfigure the process, and make the organization more efficient.

3. Build a more productive, engaged, and happy workforce. Employees and patients benefit when hospitals have an automation framework. In healthcare, nurses who stock the operating room or their stations are typically the ones walking the floors looking for paper documents and purchase requisitions. Software automation allows nurses to spend more time at the bedside caring for patients instead of hunting down a piece of paper.

Common applications

Today, software automation is helping hospitals and health systems make systemwide improvements, across all facets of an organization, rather than in siloes.

Supply chain. Software automation can streamline inventory systems by automating the flow of data, updating processes and predicting negative future events like stock outages. The system can expedite purchases and shipments, proactively maintaining appropriate inventory levels—eliminating rush fees for last minute purchases. Organizations can move to next-level procurement and no longer need to maintain a large safety stock.

Human resource (HR) processes. Hospitals and health systems are using software automation to flow data across HR processes that handle recruiting, hiring, training, and benefits. Data science and AI can also be used to match job candidates with positions that not only fit their technical skill sets but are also soft skills, cultural aptitude and long-term goals. This results in higher job satisfaction, better productivity, and lower turnover.

Hospital Finance. Hospitals looking to improve financial operations are using software automation to support a driver-based, 13-month rolling forecast. To achieve this goal, they must be able to revise their numbers and the drivers of those numbers every month. This is a significant challenge for organizations that still collect data manually from different systems.

What does the future hold?

Smart software automation will continue to evolve, taking a larger role in automating and streamlining processes. AI-enforced business rules can oversee many day-to-day operations. The use of smart analytics will become more and more critical as organizations strive to improve margins and retain profitability—all while improving the patient outcome and the patience experience. Data can make it happen. Now is the time to modernize and put smart processes in place.

 Chuck Whinney is the healthcare industry strategy director, Infor Healthcare.

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