After COVID-19, there’s no turning back from a digital clinical workforce

Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has challenged our health care industry in profound and irreversible ways, creating massive pressure that has exposed system-wide inefficiencies and inequalities. It has also fundamentally shifted the way first responders, health care providers, hospitals, health systems, and even the federal government are using digital health technologies.

The current pressure test that our industry, economy, and global community is withstanding has forced health organizations—both large and small—to rapidly adapt, catalyzing the inevitable evolution of health care into a technology-enabled experience. For example, virtual care has long been recognized as the future of health care, but it has yet to be embraced by the system at large—that is, until the COVID-19 pandemic. The recent explosion in the adoption of virtual care has demonstrated how transformational technology can enable care teams to mitigate disease spread, scale with changes in patient volume, and realize efficiencies across the health care continuum. In this manner, Covid-19 also ushered in a new era of health care delivery—one where intelligent automation and interoperability reign supreme.

In the post-COVID-19 “new normal,” there will be an unprecedented demand for efficient workflows and lean staffing ratios. Stakeholders across the care continuum will fall behind without virtual solutions that are mobile, agile, and highly automated. To date, providers have already begun implementing automated solutions to address individual clinical workflow challenges. However, the size and scope of this pressure test teaches us that we must go beyond making incremental changes to discrete parts of care delivery. To thrive in this new normal, the medical community must prioritize technology that can function across every aspect of the patient experience and support a range of clinical, administrative, and financial workflows.

Enter the “digital clinical workforce,” a fleet of digital medical assistants with the ability to adapt in any environment, at any time of the day or night, and supplement clinical staff at times when capacity is highly constrained, yet providers are asked to do more.

We have an extraordinary opportunity to unleash a digital workforce that can be built on top of existing technology platforms to reduce administrative bottlenecks. A workforce of digital medical assistants offers virtual capabilities that aren’t subject to human cognitive biases and can enhance operational functions and improve patient and provider satisfaction, from proactively engaging with patients before an encounter to decreasing provider workload through intelligent order recommendation and smart dictation.

Additionally, constantly changing guidelines and a rise in the volume of clinical data have made it challenging for providers to access the right information at the right time. Technology that can support providers with real-time clinical insights at the point of care and in their workflow is the way forward. It’s more important than ever to ingest all of the data for every patient encounter but then to use machine intelligence to distill to providers only the most important clinical trajectories and care recommendations.

Recent events have demonstrated the necessity of digital medical assistants in the new era of health care delivery, yet we’re only skimming the surface of how automation can transform the clinical setting. By leveraging advances in machine learning and natural language processing, we can establish better data collection upstream, sourced from both payer and provider repositories, in order to optimize downstream processes that include controlling health care spending, resolving market inefficiencies and improving population health monitoring. Digital assistant technology can also help keep patients on recommended care pathways, such as ensuring that postpartum mothers are seen for timely follow-up care, and Medicare beneficiaries receive annual wellness visits.

As the medical community considers the lessons from COVID-19, we must adopt technologies that can function seamlessly across the entire care continuum, offloading overburdened providers and staff of tasks they don’t want to do or shouldn’t still be doing. Just as pressure testing has historically initiated change in health care, it’s time to recognize that there’s no going back—solutions to automate the manual and repetitive aspects of health care aren’t simply the new normal. They are the new essential.

Muthu Alagappan is an internal medicine physician and medical director, Notable Health.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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