Two years after the global pandemic totally rewrote the health care playbook, hospitals, health systems, facilities, and providers are still striving to find some semblance of normalcy. Challenges present before the pandemic weren’t solved during the all-hands-on-deck mentality during wave after wave of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Obstacles such as outmoded workflows remain to be solved—and the time is now. Federal funding proved a lifesaver for health systems during the worst of the pandemic, but fewer hospitalizations and rising costs have hit hospitals and health systems hard. Even with federal CARES Act funding, already anemic hospital margins dropped into the red for the first two months of 2022.
Despite decades of technological advances, much medical data remains unstructured, which slows care delivery and frustrates providers who have to wade through disparate documents to get a full view of a patient. Natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI) automation can boost clinical efficiency by extracting information from unstructured and locked-down sources and accelerating time to care.
By reducing the inefficiencies and waste associated with administrative tasks and processes, providers can do more with less while improving the patient care experience.
Paperwork is a top source of burnout.
Ask physicians about their main job frustrations, and bureaucratic duties such as charting and paperwork inevitably rise to the top. In a recent survey, 60% of physicians pointed to bureaucracy related to paperwork, far outpacing other top responses such as lack of respect (39%), too many hours (34%), and too little pay (28%).
Coupled with physician burnout exacerbated by successive waves of COVID-19, dealing with paperwork could be the virtual straw that breaks a physician’s will to continue in the profession. Before the pandemic, physician burnout was about 40%, roughly twice that of the general population. But the pressure of too many patients, too few resources, and too few hours in the day have brought the burnout rate to as much as 75%, notes the president of the National Academy of Medicine. Nurses share high levels of stress, with nearly one in five health care workers quitting during the pandemic’s first 18 months. What’s more, 80% of those who remain say staffing shortages have hampered their ability to work safely and provide adequate patient care.
Before the pandemic, the academy estimated that burnout costs health care $4.6 billion, which has undoubtedly risen significantly in the past two years. Increased patient volumes and more regulations and requirements overwhelm providers, making them incapable of spending sufficient time on patient care.
There is encouraging news, however. A small-scale study showed that small changes to health practice workflows could better support patient care and physician well-being while reducing costs. By reducing administrative burdens, an intervention group was able to offer nearly 50% more patient appointment times than a control group could, pointing to the value of organizational efficiencies.
Administrative burdens continue to hamper the efficient and effective delivery of patient care, a challenge that natural language processing and artificial intelligence solutions can help solve.
Automation and AI bring benefits.
Recognizing that technologies such as artificial intelligence will soon transform the hospital environment, the AHA Center for Health Innovation released guidance about how AI can benefit the health care workforce.
Experts believe that 40% of the tasks performed by health care support staff can be automated, as well as 33% of the tasks performed by practitioners and technicians. The benefits of technology could bring improvements in performance, productivity, and efficiency and expanded job responsibilities through upskilling and retraining to allow clinicians to practice at the top of their license.
Among health care executives, nearly half say they are seeking to automate business processes, such as administrative tasks or customer service, as their top priority. Many of these tasks entail data collection and sharing, which often are handled manually and thus are ripe for automation.
The report notes that much of the work required to reduce administrative tasks starts with streamlining how data moves into the organization from the outside and throughout a health care organization. Another priority, however, is the quality of that information, much of which remains trapped inside unstructured data sources.
The continued proliferation of unstructured data has sparked a growing interest in AI processes that use optical readers and natural language processing technology tailored to health care. Appropriate technology exists today, but health care organizations must apply it to the right people and processes to see a positive return on investment. Future AI advancements surely will transform clinical decision-making by predicting disease pathology and recommending treatments. But first, health care organizations must unleash NLP and AI on administrative tasks that bog down care delivery.
Hospitals, health systems, and other health care organizations have access to tools that can improve the provider experience by eliminating manual tasks and making timely and accurate data available to clinicians at the point of care. For NLP and AI technologies to positively impact care quality and outcomes in the years ahead, they must prove reliable in automating basic tasks before expanding to other applications.
Companies that embrace digital processes will reap the rewards, as shown by the Forrester survey taken in 2020 after the pandemic began. The survey found that digital document processes were helping organizations maintain their business resilience and even reap direct rewards of their digitization effort. By leveraging digital document processes, organizations can increase employee productivity and collaboration in a remote environment while continuing to serve customers. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said digital document processes supported their business continuity efforts.
Respondents from organizations with digital processes reported ten times fewer at-risk customers and two times less at-risk revenue. Nearly half of those with digital processes said that having such capabilities helped them pursue opportunities and gain customers during the pandemic. More than half (54%) believe the benefits of better employee collaboration will continue post-pandemic, with nearly half (47%) expressing the same sentiment about customer satisfaction.
Hospitals, health systems, and other providers need reliable, actionable data to provide services and offer the best care for patients. Digital document processes that include natural language processing and artificial intelligence technologies can turn unstructured documents into actionable information, facilitating streamlined workflow processes, faster care, and more meaningful interactions between patients and providers.
Bevey Miner is a health care executive.
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