By Matt Phillion
It’s a story we hear often: the healthcare consumer experience feels fragmented and impersonal. Patients feel passed around, navigating a faceless bureaucracy, more case number than individual.
A recent study by Accenture found that 66% of respondents reported a negative experience while accessing their care. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they switched providers based on navigation issues with managing their care.
But in the face of staffing shortages everywhere, connecting quickly and in a way that meets the patient’s needs and makes them feel like an individual is a challenge. As new, emerging technologies arise, the question becomes: is automation the answer? Opportunities present themselves where machine learning, improved integration, and customer self-service options can remove some of the administrative burden on staff so they can focus more of their attention on patient interactions, pulling information from texts, call logs, the EHR, and more, and provide them to staff in an easily digestible format. Are there ways healthcare can leverage AI to improve the patient experience?
“This is the topic everyone is talking about,” says Patty Hayward, GM of Healthcare and Life Sciences with Talkdesk.
The level of discussion is encouraging, Hayward says, as entire industries must grapple with the AI and machine learning question and the economics of adopting or not adopting the technology.
“We didn’t do this with social media when it first arrived and that had a huge impact,” she says.
Top of mind of course is how alternative uses of AI can alleviate the ever-present administrative burden and burnout the industry is facing.
“I think that’s the magic about AI: there’s a lot of things to be concerned about, but the upside is there’s a lot of promise there. We’re fighting so much burnout in healthcare. It’s a true epidemic. Looking at predictions of shortfalls in workers and clinicians is depressing, frankly. How are we going to fight that?”
Much of the discussion is how to help people stay in the professions they worked so hard to enter in the first place.
“Some of the things that come up often are that we’ve become such a tech-infused industry that it’s taken away from the patient and clinician experience and had a negative impact on patient interactions,” says Hayward.
Time spent on screen, entering notes into the record, reviewing records: technology has helped healthcare limitlessly, but it has also added a cognitive and administrative burden that runs interference between the very human interaction that needs to exist between patient and provider.
“The promise of AI, though, is that it brings the ability to do a lot of the administrative work, pushing those tasks off the plate of the healthcare professional,” says Hayward.
This is particularly useful when it comes to call centers, Hayward notes.
“When someone is calling in to ask questions about their care, AI can transcribe and summarize the call so you can focus on the call itself. You make sure the information is correct when you enter it into the system of record, but you don’t have to struggle to take notes in the moment,” says Hayward. “Imagine having the tools that listen to the conversation and help provide the next best action right there. If I need to make an appointment for an MRI, there’s a bunch of questions the agent needs to ask to make sure I’m scheduled for the right time and location. It’s not like scheduling a haircut. If those answers just came up and you didn’t have to search for them, that’s the magic.”
Generative AI is meant to listen and learn—unlike older iterations of AI, which haven’t been as helpful because you need to program every iteration into the workflow, or it won’t work.
“You’re able to put in the business problem you want to solve—and you don’t need a data scientist. It’s democratizing,” says Hayward.
Help the jobs that exist, not eliminate them
Understandably, there’s always a concern that new technology will eliminate jobs. But given the relentlessness of the worker shortage now, Hayward sees this technology as enhancing and removing stress from the workers who are already here.
“Imagine being able to practice at the top of your license—not only from an economic perspective, but how that feeds the soul,” she says. “You don’t become a nurse and go through all that training and education so you can take notes. And from a contact center agent perspective, you want to be able to help people. You’re there to serve the patient and if all you’re doing is taking notes and barely able to pay attention and connect with the person on the phone, that’s not satisfying to the agent or the caller.”
Automation can create an environment that allows time for more connection and more enrichment.
“People go into healthcare so they can give back. It’s why I stay in healthcare—because I want to help people receive better care. And right now, the system is broken, so we need to look at what areas can have the biggest impact,” she says.
Healthcare is in a unique position when it comes to generative AI because of the nature of the types of interactions and the importance of the data.
“Healthcare involves a lot of governance, and highly regulated industries will be on the front line to make sure we’re keeping data safe,” says Hayward. “That’s what the recent Executive Order really dictates: getting out in front of this and figuring out how to keep this information safe and secure. We can’t just take [protected health information] and throw it into a general ChatGPT model.”
Who takes the lead is important for where and how things evolve, Hayward notes.
“Technology has to be a team sport. We can’t just have IT professionals involved. We’ve got to have our operations groups at the table, legal, technology, executive teams,” she says.
And now is not the time to put your head in the sand, Hayward points out.
“If you look at the difference between early adopters and laggards, the cost differential is huge. Compare it to banking’s evolution using AI and how those that invested early and evolved their processes and saw costs per transaction lower,” says Hayward. “If you look at where folks are right now in healthcare and the margins they’re seeing, we know we’ve got to figure out ways to do a better job with those margins.”
But beyond the economic impact, there’s the undeniable opportunity to elevate the patient care experience.
“If you think about the patient journey as it stands today—and we’re all healthcare consumers—you have some experiences that are just awful,” says Hayward. “But when you are dealing with an organization that has the tech figured out, that provides you the ability to interact digitally with multiple locations to look up availability and access, the investment shows.”
Forward thinking organizations know that access is pivotal for patient acquisition.
“It’s about that operational aspect, aligning your thoughts about patient acquisition. A brand new patient who has a good experience will stay. Once they’ve been in and had a good experience, they’re probably coming back,” says Hayward. “Technology isn’t going to change everything, but it’s really important for health systems to have operations sitting at the table to align with the challenges you’re trying to solve. Otherwise, you’re just having something that’s already broken go faster.”
Where healthcare goes next in terms of technology, particularly automation and generative AI, requires action now to prepare for the future.
“If you learn how to ride a horse today and I wait a year, we’ll both be riding a horse next year, but one of us will be a lot further along,” says Hayward.
Matt Phillion is a freelance writer covering healthcare, cybersecurity, and more. He can be reached at email@example.com.