Healthcare Leaders Move to Automate as Many Processes as Possible

Rikki Jennings (BSN, RN, CPN), Chief Nursing Informatics Officer, Zebra Technologies

Automation is no longer part of healthcare systems’ long-term vision. It is a near-term priority. Eight in 10 hospital decision-makers who participated in Zebra’s latest Healthcare Vision Study say they will automate everything from emergency room (ER) and operating room (OR) orchestration to supply chain management, asset locationing, and staff scheduling in the next year. They don’t have a choice.

Without help from technology, staff members are at risk of burnout, patients may experience longer wait times, and the overall healthcare experience could suffer. Front-line workers simply don’t have the bandwidth to manage facilities, operational records or medical supplies and equipment in today’s high-demand, fast-paced clinical settings – at least not on their own. Plus, it takes far too much time to manually input information into business systems, and there’s no guarantee that information will make it to the right people on time. That’s why “improving the quality of patient care” is the top driver of healthcare IT investments right now, followed closely by “improving workforce collaboration and communication.”

But using technology to solve for today’s staffing shortages, patient surges and information silos requires thoughtful effort. You can’t just automate data capture, consolidate systems, or digitalize workflows and assume you’ll gain efficiencies or improve staff and patient experiences.

The First Step to Healthcare Automation

Most likely, you’ve already started digitizing data and digitalizing some workflows. But before you take steps to automate anything, ask yourself:

  • What processes do I plan to automate and why? If you can’t build a strong business case for automation, or you don’t have a clear cost-benefit analysis to reference, you may just end up with a digital version of the same complex, fragmented, inefficient process. That’s because not everything may need to be automated, at least right away.
  • What should be automated first, next, and last? In warehousing environments, it’s assumed that fulfillment workflows should be automated first. But that’s not always the case, because if inbound logistics are lagging due to a lack of automation and it’s taking a long time to process or shelve received goods, then fulfillment teams may still hit roadblocks in getting orders out on time. The same idea applies in healthcare. Automating ER and OR turnover can be beneficial. But if it takes an hour for patient intake or transport due to manual or disconnected systems, then does it really help that the room was turned over quickly? I’m not saying there is a perfect order. Just make sure you understand the risks versus benefits of your proposed automation roadmap and timing.
  • How much do I really understand about the artificial intelligence (AI) technology powering the automation solutions I’m considering? And how much technical knowledge is needed to successfully implement and manage automation platforms (if any)? Though many workflows can be automated using software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms or familiar technologies such as RFID, not all automation solutions are plug-and-play. You may need the support of technical specialists or data scientists depending on what you’re trying to do and the type of automation solution you need. So, honestly assess your in-house resources and plan to bring in trusted outside experts for guidance, especially during your discovery, solution design, implementation, staff training and optimization phases.
  • What are the dependencies for automation? Do you need certain Wi-Fi or 5G capabilities? Will data validation be required to ensure only clean data is flowing through automated systems? Will processes need to be reengineered to support automation? Will anything in the process need to be managed by exception? These are all considerations that can be commonly overlooked and cause delays in go-live or even performance issues after launch.
  • What is the right way to automate? Given that automation can be facilitated by everything from barcode scanners and RFID readers to machine vision cameras, robots and SaaS solutions, it’s important you consider all your options before committing to anything. While a barcode scanner may automate positive patient identification (PPID) and electronic medical record (EMR) retrieval via patient wristbands, switching to an RFID-based wristband will also enable you to better track patient movements across your campus and assist with flow assessments. Plus, you will need to consider your scaling strategy as business demands evolve or new information flows or workflows need to be automated.

If you’re struggling to answer these questions, or you want to make sure you aren’t missing anything in your current automation strategy, please reach out to a technology solution provider for a consult. They’ll help you ask – and answer – all the right questions and equip you with the resources you need to keep the automation process from becoming painful for IT teams, clinicians or patients.

Lots of Workflows Can Be Automated. But Should They Be?

There’s no doubt that healthcare systems that want to improve resource utilization and service quality must commit to widespread automation. But that doesn’t mean that every workflow must be fully automated. Healthcare is a human-oriented practice. We can’t take people completely out of the equation. In fact, I believe the most valuable automation solutions are those that give clinicians and support staff time back to spend with patients.

For example, automating staff scheduling with intelligent workforce management software can free up the charge nurse to be more present during patient rounds, offer more personalized, hands-on training to staff nurses, and monitor compliance with policies that help protect patient safety and well-being. And using track and trace technologies such as RFID to automate supply chain management can help prevent out-of-stocks or the need to hunt down misplaced or spare equipment. They can also automate routine inventory counts and equipment quality checks, which takes time-consuming administrative duties off clinicians’ plates and enables them to stay focused on what they were hired to do: care for patients.

Plus, automating utilization reporting and asset location can make it easy to pull recalled items from inventory or contact patients who may be affected, significantly streamlining critical tasks that would otherwise be time consuming. And from an operational perspective, automating notifications to ER and OR turnover teams can improve bed availability so care teams can see more patients in a day. Along those same lines, automated patient vital monitoring and alerts can help care teams stay focused on the most critical patients at any given time. They can confirm patients are stable without having to physically enter each room, and they can intervene immediately when a patient has a crisis – even from afar.

In other words, automating the right processes is the key to achieving more efficient throughput management, as well as scheduling optimization based on fluctuating staff availability and patient demands. It will also be crucial to broader business model transformation, which includes dual systems of care, site of care shifts, and virtual care product lines.

From what I’ve seen and heard working with leading healthcare systems, many decision-makers are choosing to automate back-office processes first, including supply chain management, revenue planning and human resources activities. From there, they’re looking at opportunities to improve clinical operations, especially patient flow, discharge management and self-scheduling capabilities. Then they’re moving on to the introduction and refinement of automated clinical care workflows, such as remote patient monitoring, clinical documentation, and prescription generation.

I can’t say if this is the right approach for you without understanding your current business model, challenges, and objectives. However, I would encourage you to strongly consider the automation of your end-to-end processes at the same time, even if you end up rolling out the technology incrementally. Looking at automation opportunities more holistically will enable you to better establish your governance structure and figure out how you’ll measure return on investment (ROI) for each automation upgrade. It will also reduce the risk that you’ll end up back where you started: with a bunch of incompatible systems and disconnected workflows.

Besides, taking the time now to think through your longer-term automation strategy will set you up to enjoy an immediate ROI for your automation solution. When you test an automation platform, you’ll do so with the bigger picture goal in mind. You’ll look at interoperability with other technologies and overall performance and impact with a more critical eye. You’ll also be able to assess the ease of scaling and determine potential refinement – and resource – requirements.

So, if you are one of many healthcare leaders who plans to automate operations in some way this year, make sure you’re considering your long-term needs. Yes, it’s important to augment staff, add efficiencies, and increase throughput and capacity as quickly as possible. But it’s even more crucial that the time and effort we put forth now to automate certain workflows gives as a solid foundation from which to improve patient and staff experiences in the future.

Healthcare Automation, Healthcare Vision Study, RFID, workflows, Zebra Technologies


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