Car dealerships have something to teach hospitals

A couple of weeks ago I took my car in for its regular servicing. I’ve always had excellent service at this dealership and have gotten used to some pretty high standards. But on this particular visit, I was about to receive a dose of new technology as well. After I pulled my car into the garage, I was immediately greeted by a welcoming and friendly customer service agent. She had an iPad-like smart device with her, using it to promptly check my details and confirm exactly what I was bringing my car in for.

A question came up regarding whether a certain part had been replaced previously — my mileage meant that a replacement would soon be required — and she went through the old records to look into this. When I told her that I wasn’t entirely sure because I lived in Florida for a year, she replied, “No problem, we can pull up all of those records as long as it was performed at a dealership!”

As she explained what might be needed, she was pulling up pictures on her screen and showing me all my car’s previous service details. After this, I was politely shown the way inside to sit down, where I enjoyed complementary tea and muffins while working on my laptop. Just over an hour later, the same service agent came back and went over what had been done, again using the smart device. I paid what I owed, and went outside to where my car was waiting, fully cleaned with mints left on the passenger seat for me. I may be lucky to be able to take my car into such a terrific place, but the technology experience also made me think, why on earth don’t we do something similar in health care? It was a quick, interactive and seamless experience.

While office-based doctors have made full use of the computers at their desks for a very long time, the same cannot to be said for how hospital doctors work with them. What I saw that day at the car dealership quite frankly serves to highlight how behind our technology is. All hospital doctors should be able to round on patients with portable devices by their side. As well as pulling up records and placing orders, we should also be able to use our smart devices as an aid for educating our patients.

The current typical scenario is for a patient to ask the doctor something such as; “What is my white cell count this morning?” or “What exactly did the test report say?”, and for that doctor to be forced into saying, “Oh, I’ll have to go outside to the computer to check on that.”

This shouldn’t be happening in today’s day and age. Hospital doctors need real time access to data while they are on the go. In an instant we should be able to pull up the patient’s past history, medications, tests and investigations. A handful of institutions across the country are already trying to do this, but it needs to be universally adopted. The ideal scenario would be for the doctor to sit down, have a good face-to-face conversation with their patient, while making full use of their smart device at the same time.

Hospital medicine doctors are best placed to utilize this most effectively. Eventually, we could even efficiently incorporate medical documentation into this. As well as the obvious convenience factor, easy access to complete records has another huge advantage. At a time when health care waste is estimated at $750 billion, or 30 cents for every dollar spent, the potential cost savings are enormous.

Barriers that we face include the fact that not all hospitals are fully computerized, and those that are have slow and inefficient computer systems with poor network connectivity. The current IT systems come between, rather than add, to the doctor-patient interaction.

I noticed on the day my car was serviced how user-friendly and ultra sleek the display was. Even in the restaurant industry, I’ve seen many hosts and hostesses working with smart devices that have great user interfaces. There are undoubtedly better health IT systems being developed, but frontline clinical staff need these now, not in another decade. Doctors (and nurses) are ready and willing to work with new and improved technology when it becomes available. Nobody would be more delighted when this happens. Unfortunately, many doctors are too jaded with their experiences of health care IT to even contemplate how the right kind of technology could improve their practice.

It may seem strange that car dealerships have something to teach hospitals. Perhaps a bit ironic, because this industry is often considered the diametric opposite of what doctors do (anyone heard the joke about the car salesman?). The benefits of using new technology in health care are multifaceted, including better patient experience, and also provider satisfaction too. While this will never take away from the face-to-face conversation, optimal technology can greatly enhance what we do. Physicians, patients, and the health care system — we will all be winners when we get this right.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha and High Percentage Wellness Steps: Natural, Proven, Everyday Steps to Improve Your Health & Well-being.  He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

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