April 14, 2022
New technology could shorten hospital stays by as much as three to five days.
We are rationing healthcare. The reason is not a shortage of beds, drugs, ventilators or surgical suites. It is a shortage of healthcare personnel.
As with other parts of the American economy, healthcare has stretched its workforce to its limit. Doctors, nurses, administrators, respiratory therapists and others have been in emergency mode for much of the past two years. Unpredictable surges of Covid-19 still threaten to increase the workload and sideline workers. No wonder there is tremendous burnout. People are quitting, causing serious workforce shortages and compromising medical care.
The solution is automation. For decades this has been a dirty word, viewed as an existential threat to American workers. Covid-19 and burnout, however, are making it a savior. The labor shortage in healthcare has put enormous strain on the industry. Largely because of employee burnout, the healthcare workforce shrank by 424,000 between February 2020 and March 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Healthcare executives complain it is harder to hire and retain employees than ever before. With 9% of job positions in healthcare unfilled, the industry must find ways to ease the burden.
The concept behind automation is straightforward: Find high-volume, highly repetitive and highly manual workflows, and substitute technology and machines. The technology underlying automation is quite sophisticated. A wave of digital health companies are deploying robotic processes, machine learning, natural-language processing and other approaches to improve the way healthcare is delivered. Advances in artificial intelligence, access to untapped data and the availability of cloud-based infrastructure have expanded what’s achievable.
While the healthcare industry is often slow to adopt new technologies, it is starting to see results from automation. Viz.ai is a digital health company that uses automation to reduce the time required to get patients brain-saving interventions. Instead of hours of image processing, radiology reviews and specialty consults, Viz applies artificial intelligence to detect, measure and predict the extent of disease. The platform then triggers intervention in minutes. Automating this care pathway reduces treatment times: saving lives, brain tissue and shortening hospital stays by as much as three to five days.
There are countless other cases for automation. Automating the collection of statistics for quality evaluations, the imparting of basic information to patients, the tracking of medication adherence and the performance of repetitive administrative functions frees up time for doctors and nurses to enhance care for patients.
Syllable is a startup that uses AI to help patients schedule appointments and refill prescriptions. In one month, New York’s Weill Cornell Hospital automated some 10,000 calls, saving the equivalent of 375 workdays.
As Sean Lane, CEO of the automation platform Olive, puts it, “We’ve stopped treating doctors, nurses, patients and others as humans. Instead, because the systems don’t talk to each other, we treat them like typewriters and routers, filling out the same forms over and over on different screens and systems.” Administrative inefficiencies are a tremendous drag on the industry and a driving cause of burnout.
There is much within healthcare that shouldn’t be automated: bedside care, lifesaving surgery, compassionate conversations about diagnoses and treatment options. But these tasks aren’t what is causing burnout and labor shortages. The tedious tasks that healthcare workers despise can be automated.
The healthcare industry needs to recognize that automation does not imply job reductions in the name of corporate greed. Instead, it offers a way to improve the delivery of care, with day-to-day work made more manageable for the 12 million workers in the healthcare system. Decision makers need to look at every option to tackle labor shortages while enhancing patient outcomes. Automation is a readily available and effective technological approach for helping ensure Americans can get high-quality care.
Dr. Emanuel is a physician, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and a venture partner at Oak HC/FT, a venture and growth-equity firm, which has investments in Olive and Syllable. Mr. Deitch is a partner at Oak HC/FT.
This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.