Presented by Optum

The healthcare industry is still feeling the fallout from the COVID pandemic, which has not only piled on its own challenges but compounded existing ones. That fallout includes everything from staffing to burnout issues, as well as elective and preventative care not returning to pre-COVID volumes. There’s increasing friction in interactions between providers and payers with patients trapped in the middle, concerns about the way and where care is delivered, and more.

But of all the obstacles the healthcare delivery system faces, the workforce challenge might be the largest, says Scott Gaydos, VP of product at Optum. Even when an organization isn’t triaging a shortage of staff, available workers are often facing burnout. And that means of all the healthcare technology solutions an organization can embrace, automation might be the most crucial. It’s an opportunity to rethink, design and deliver an ecosystem that addresses these issues — and along the way support the workforce, improve patient care and reduce complexity.

“Technology isn’t a silver bullet, but there are definite opportunities for technology strategies and solutions to address the workforce crisis,” Gaydos says. “It’s the springboard that enables your business strategy, when you link the investment and spend in IT to the solutions that drive you digitally forward.”

Automation and the healthcare workforce

Why focus on automation? The technology can reduce or eliminate the redundant and tedious tasks where healthcare workers spend so much time, freeing them to deliver better patient care, Gaydos says. Solutions range from lower-level, mundane use cases to the more transformational applications, but all of them deliver benefits.

That automation can be something as simple as digital identity management. Healthcare IT helpdesks spend an inordinate percentage of their time fielding password reset requests, to the tune of tens of thousands of calls a year, Gaydos says. Automation solutions that allow workers to reset a forgotten password on any device can both reduce the strain on the help desk, but, more importantly, lets a clinician fix their own issue in seconds and get back to real work. Significantly reducing the number of interactions has a profound effect on the healthcare system and the happiness of staff.

Patient self-scheduling is a next-level automation solution that creates efficiency and saves time. Rather than having a patient call an already-busy office staff, they can use web or mobile technologies to schedule their own appointments with their providers.

The magic isn’t in the online scheduling app or front end, as that’s been available for a long time. It’s in the back-end automation, and orchestration of all the moving parts and systems where that provider’s information is stored, such as what office a provider will be in, when, whether a telehealth slot might fit the bill, and what forms or equipment might be needed to fulfill that appointment. Patients get more choice in how they engage, and, on the back end, it frees up the office staff to concentrate on other tasks.

Further, newer automation innovations like ambient clinical intelligence uses voice recognition technology during patient encounters to allow real-time documentation in the electronic health record (with the patient’s permission). Doctors spend many tedious hours updating electronic charts at the end of the day but a solution like this gives them back that time. This can mean potentially seeing more patients and putting more focus on analyzing patient situations during appointments.

The real key to ROI on automation

Implementing automation strategies is the first big hurdle — the next are the obstacles that organizations face both internally and with patients. Patient education can be a particularly daunting task, especially in ensuring patients are aware of their rights and of the benefits of opting into a technology solution. Another is teaching patients how to access and use tools like self-scheduling.

To help patients use technology in the workplace or a doctor’s office like they do in their daily lives, training strategies are key. That includes A/B testing new solutions to determine which ones create the more positive experience for users, and beta testers who are willing to be the champions of a new solution.

However, one of the biggest challenges doesn’t center on the automation solution itself, but on reclaiming the time saved by that automation. For example, if a self-scheduling solution frees up 25% of a worker’s time, it should be redirected into strategic opportunities rather than backfilled with similar administrative tasks.

“This is the real key to the ROI on automation. It’s not the tech. It’s the time you save and what to do with it,” Gaydos says. “Unfortunately, too often we don’t do anything of value with that reclaimed time. It becomes more of a business strategy execution exercise to ensure that the time that is saved is, in fact, put toward a higher value activity.”

Getting buy-in from the workforce

Another big piece of the automation puzzle is getting a workforce invested in the upgrades and confident in both the impact new tools will have as well as their ability to leverage them effectively.

“Well-executed training and rollout is critical to success,” Gaydos says. “That’s not a place to skimp on the investment. You need to get folks to truly understand not just what has changed, but why it has changed, and help them work that into their new workflows.”

And because technology is always evolving, you must ensure that your workforce is prepared. An agile approach can indoctrinate an organization to evolutionary and incremental change. And again, education, transparency and continual communication around what’s coming and why, are key, as well as dividing those iterations in ways that are consumable by the end-user community.

An overarching plan and vision are also critical for a successful rollout. All decisions, both technology and business, should be aligned to the vision. That plan should also serve as a barometer for these decisions, and whether a choice will contribute toward reaching the vision. It requires some overarching governance, but that can largely be handled through the same education and transparency.

“Instilling that plan in everyone’s heads collectively throughout the organization allows for more federated actions to happen,” he says. “Making sure everybody understands the what, the why and the how can lead to having that organizational success in the long run.”

Looking for more? Visit Optum C-suite Insights for actionable insights for health care leaders, including peer-to-peer insights, dialogue, perspectives, analysis and more.

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