By Matt Phillion
Flu season is always a tough time in healthcare facilities, with sick patients increasing the workload while sick personnel leave shortages in staffing. But this winter was particularly challenging as a “tripledemic” of COVID-19, flu, and RSV cases collided. We’ve already witnessed many professionals leaving the industry in the face of these increased demands, and studies have shown that one in five doctors are considering leaving medicine in the next two years.
With greater burden on staff and a rising shortage of personnel, organizations are turning to technology to alleviate the stressors that are driving staff away or preventing them from practicing at the top of their license. One way they’re accomplishing this is automating tasks wherever possible. In fact, McKinsey says that roughly a third of all healthcare provider tasks are automatable.
While much of the stress on staff has been related to the pandemic and tripledemic, Jason Warrelmann, vice president of global services and process industries with UiPath, notes that the increased burden—and the pending staffing shortage—was on the horizon even before COVID-19 struck.
“We’re going to use COVID as a precursor, as it’s on everyone’s mind,” he says. “But before that we were already seeing an upcoming deficit of 20%–30% by 2025–2026. It was already a state of emergency before COVID happened.”
This was due to several factors: expected retirements, funding issues, professionals who were unwilling to work in regions where they wouldn’t be paid appropriately. “It’s hard to recruit someone to Flint, Michigan,” says Warrelmann. And enrollment was down in medical schools, leaving the healthcare industry worried about how they would fill those vacancies without new, incoming talent.
Previously, the discussion around automation was less about abrasion of clinical staff and more about invoicing claims to ensure organizations or providers were receiving 100% of their reimbursement—and then COVID-19 happened.
How COVID-19 changed the conversation
“Coming into the COVID era, clinicians saw patients dying in mass rates they’d never seen before. There was a lot of not just mental but physical burnout,” says Warrelmann. “That’s when the issue became not just about people retiring but [about] people no longer wanting to be health professionals.”
There were also growing opportunities for clinicians to find work without being in a burnout-prone environment: technology companies where they were diagnosing technology rather than people, he says.
“The hope is that diagnosing technology helps people in the long run, and there’s been a dynamic shift to these job trajectories, which is going to continue until there’s a dynamic shift in how healthcare systems work,” says Warrelmann.
He notes that during the height of the pandemic, there was a lot of work being done to educate executives about digital technology to avoid staffing issues related to surges and layoffs once the pandemic subsided.
“We’ve got to start putting the technology in place now so when that surge happens you don’t have to overhire,” says Warrelmann. “Some systems listened and were successful, and some didn’t.”
Shifts in adoption
Healthcare’s traditionally slow adoption of technology improved during the pandemic—out of necessity—and automation has been a part of that shift. “The industry is less gun-shy than it was, to be honest. They say it takes 10 years for healthcare to catch up with other industries, but it’s a lot less now,” says Warrelmann.
The industry has seen more executives coming into healthcare from outside the industry, which has spurred more efficient adoption of new technologies. “This has been breaking the traditional bureaucracy and led to faster adoption, especially around the areas of intelligent automation and patient experience,” says Warrelmann.
That faster adoption combined with the needs introduced by the pandemic led to a unique new problem, however: The market became flooded with solutions. “Healthcare is now in that place of trying to figure out what the organization should actually buy,” says Warrelmann. “And of course when you’re an executive and you’re given 80 options in a class of technology, you’re going to spend a lot of time figuring it out because you don’t want to bear the tech debt. So in that way healthcare has been quicker to adopt, but now has too many options.”
Were hospitals ready for this onrush of options? “I think a lot of organizations were underprepared,” says Warrelmann. “Their thoughts and vision were in the right place, and they were prepared from the strategy perspective, but not in an implementation perspective.”
Bringing in new tech requires a great deal of change management and time commitment; many organizations were ideologically ready for the change but didn’t have the staff to properly carry it out. “We’re just starting to see organizations get clear of that,” he says. “For a lot of these technologies it’s been a test run or pilot, and organizations are now in a place where they’ve built the infrastructure to go big.”
Larger organizations have weathered the storm more easily, notes Warrelmann, while smaller and rural systems continue to struggle. “The government is going to need to help them, or they’ll be bought out by larger organizations. M&A will be big,” he says.
Digital health will require interoperability
One pandemic shift that won’t be going away is the increase in digital health. “It really is what’s required to survive,” says Warrelmann. “The traditional sense of going to a doctor’s office when you don’t feel well, those typical methods of care really need to change, and they’re starting to.”
Automating the administrative side of those telehealth visits that take the place of in-person doctor appointments can help scale back staffing burnout, he notes.
“You don’t want to go into a hospital right now if you don’t have to, between COVID, the flu, and RSV,” says Warrelmann. “Digital health is going to drive that, but there are so many choices out there that what’s happening is organizations are buying different products and they don’t mesh well.”
There’s a growing need for interoperability between technologies. “Organizations need to focus on creating that harmonious program, which is hard when your whole operation is third-party based,” says Warrelmann. “We need to really make that democratized and more open so [organizations] can make a choice to ensure their whole health system is connected in a logical way instead of fighting with different vendors.”
That’s the biggest challenge organizations face now, he explains. Many healthcare facilities can have hundreds of technologies in the system, all of which look and feel different. The situation has led to the rise of the CDO (chief digital officer) rather than the CIO (chief information officer), he says.
“The CIO focused on the tech stack, but the CDO looks at ‘How do I transform my whole enterprise?’ ” says Warrelmann. “It’s not just ‘How do I build the API between system A and B?’ It’s ‘How do I look at the experience of the clinician and reconnect my whole tech stack to make them more efficient?’ ”
It’s got to be done right, Warrelmann explains. Few health systems can afford to throw everything out and rebuild.
Next steps to successful adoption
Talk to any executive, Warrelmann says, and you’ll hear that their biggest challenge is how to work between the provider and the payer. “They spend most of their money making sure they know about you from their insurance company,” he adds. The industry will be looking for technology to control that process better. He expects that this year and beyond will focus on the clinician perspective.
“If you’re going to build an experience for the clinicians so that they’ll stay and are happy, you have to build the technology around the experience they require, not the requirements of the job at hand,” Warrelmann says. “It’s a fallacy that is followed through, especially in the world of AI. All this talk about how AI broke things is because it was built on requirements and not on what the end user wanted.”
Study the way clinicians do their work, their workflows and pain points, and you’ll find that the reporting and quality-control requirements of the job are all things they don’t really have time to do. “It’s called human-centric design, but a lot of organizations aren’t trained in that and take the classic IT approach,” says Warrelmann.
The industry needs to understand the improvements that could make clinicians’ workflows more efficient. Warrelmann cites an example where an organization had a 45-minute paperwork process that really only generated five useful pieces of information per patient. The organization created an automated capture box for those pieces of information, cutting the process down to less than three minutes.
“These are the kinds of innovations we need,” says Warrelmann. “Most clinicians spend between two and three hours a day doing backlog charting they didn’t do during the day. That’s time you spend with your family, have dinner, that’s gym time. If you can give them that back, it’s a huge impact on their mental health.”
Whether they get up early or stay up late to tackle their extra work, tired clinicians can make mistakes and burn out—a burden automation can help lighten.
“We’re at the Jetsons level of innovation. There’s things in that cartoon that are healthcare concepts now,” says Warrelmann. “It just requires the thought leadership and innovation to start getting it done. It’s a good place to be in; we just need to use it all.”
Matt Phillion is a freelance writer covering healthcare, cybersecurity, and more. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.