What’s driving healthcare innovation in 2021
2020 saw tremendous advancement in healthcare innovation. While some data sharing and pro-consumer data access initiatives were delayed as the result of the pandemic and changes in the political landscape, in the end, advances in healthcare technology and data interoperability surged forward. With billions of dollars funneling into digital health despite a public health emergency, the stage is set for 2021 to usher forth equal, if not more dramatic, innovation for healthcare consumers, providers and payers in the coming 12-18 months and beyond.
With all 50 states coordinating COVID-19 vaccination priorities, on the back end, interoperability infrastructure is also being put to the test. The prior administration’s move to push through the CMS Interoperability and Patient Access final rule was the right move – it is driving the healthcare system toward the interoperability we now need for successful COVID-19 testing, vaccination and tracking efforts. Meanwhile, innovators and business decision-makers are coming together, investing in robotic process automation (RPA) and challenging traditional methods for managing both care and payments, all in the pursuit of digital health transformation.
Over the next 18 months, accelerating across 2022, these efforts will see far greater support from across the industry as we rely on tools for tracking vaccinated patients, ensuring second doses are administered (where applicable) and certifying vaccination records to support rapid and accurate public health reporting. For travel and other related reasons, making test result data digitally available in real time will also emerge as both a social and health priority. Robust interoperability standards will be the only way we’ll gather valuable insight on how many people are getting the vaccine, getting the second dose on time (if needed), and subsequently, continue to verify their effectiveness. Opening social access and interchange will also rely heavily on COVID-19 status data being readily and reliably sharable should this crisis extend much beyond 2021.
Automating healthcare, finally.
A final CMS Rule designed to reduce administrative and care delivery burden within the industry for payers, providers and patients was published by the previous administration and is currently on hold pending review. Whether the components of that rule move forward as a mandate or voluntarily, the codification of methods to use technology to reduce burdens is a bell that cannot be unrung.
The direction set forth in the rule will immediately drive progress on the industry’s RPA agenda – the end-to-end automation of the prior authorization process, a process fraught with burdensome steps and activity required of providers, payers and patients. 2021 will be the year RPA begins to realize its full potential for transforming the industry. Healthcare-wide interoperability is the enabler to applying artificial intelligence and machine learning when patients move across the healthcare continuum. For those responsible for managing, delivering and financing care, it will be friction-free, with smooth handoffs from one process owner to the next. A very rare experience as reported by patients today.
As interoperability allows cross-enterprise process integration, patients will be less involved in the payment and financial side of healthcare, allowing them to focus all their time on staying compliant with doctor’s orders and keeping healthy. RPA won’t completely cut out the human processes, but it will allow more automated processes that will learn from and predict when human intervention is needed – like during the prior authorization process. According to the AMA, prior authorization requirements consume more than 14 hours of physician office time per physician, per week. This consumes billions of provider operating dollars that could be spent supporting better quality and access to care. While it may be the less-sexy side of interoperability, RPA will equip doctors with the information and support they need to make decisions about the most appropriate care that yields the best outcomes for patients at a personal level. While 2021 will just be the start, the coming years will see those wasted hours converted from paperwork directly into patient care.
The economic fragility of healthcare will heal.
Alongside data tracking and exchange, business will still get done in 2021. Money is cheap, payers have healthy reserves as a result of forgone care in 2020. We can expect this progress and synergy across the system to result in rapidly increasing transactional activity based upon structured data rapidly coming online. Most notably, payers are getting creative in how they support network providers suffering from cash flow problems because of the slowdown in discretionary care under the pandemic. Option B for many providers unfortunately has been bankruptcy. Ironically, those providers that aggressively embraced population-based payment prior to the pandemic have weathered the crisis far better than their peers who resisted risk contracts. That will change in a big way across the next two years.
The rebounding stock market has venture capitalists shopping around for the next “genius product” – that will make huge waves industry-wide. Further, vertical integrations, much like Cigna’s purchase of Express Scripts and CVS’ of Aetna don’t get much pushback from the federal government because they seem to provide the promise of increased patient value. The jury is still out. Similar for transactions between health plans purchasing provider groups and large tech vendors, and large providers further consolidating and investing in startup tech vendors.
When it comes to the healthcare market in 2021, it will be like the Wild West. Investors and buyers will be willing to roll the dice and take on high business risks. Money will be flying; most deals will get approved and it should be fun to watch which transaction will emerge as the “deal of the year.”
Today, all signs are pointing to a year in healthcare that will be positive in the end. The work that went into liberating patient care and payment data in 2020 will present many roads to success – frankly, a win the healthcare industry needs right now. As new standards are implemented, a new industry is surfacing – the Health App Economy – which is perhaps the biggest emerging healthcare trend in over 100 years (back when the practice of medicine was standardized in medical schools across the U.S.).
Moving toward a state where most U.S. patient data will be available virtually anywhere, we are rapidly heading to an exciting world that presents endless opportunities for our healthcare ecosystem – all thanks to innovative technology. And as we rethink our care processes with the goal of making high quality care accessible to everyone in this country, we can finally hope that there is a clear, affordable and achievable path to the elusive goal of making healthcare work as a universal human right in America.
How UiPath robots are helping with the NHS backlog
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many hospitals to have logistical nightmares, as backlogs of surgeries built up as a result of cancellations. The BMJ has estimated it will take the UK's National Health Service (NHS) a year and a half to recover.
However software robots can help, by automating computer-based processes such as replenishing inventory, managing patient bookings, and digitising patient files. Mark O’Connor, Public Sector Director for Ireland at UiPath, tells us how they deployed robots at Mater Hospital in Dublin, saving clinicians valuable time.
When Did Mater Hospital implement the software robots - was it specifically to address the challenges of the pandemic?
The need for automation at Mater Hospital pre-existed the pandemic but it was the onset of COVID-19 that got the team to turn to the technology and start introducing software robots into the workflow of doctors and nurses.
The pandemic placed an increased administrative strain on the Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) department at Mater Hospital in Dublin. To combat the problem and ensure that nurses could spend more time with their patients and less time on admin, the IPC deployed its first software robots in March 2020.
The IPC at Mater plans to continue using robots to manage data around drug resistant microbes such as MRSA once the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
What tasks do they perform?
In the IPC at Mater Hospital, software robots have taken the task of reporting COVID-19 test results. Pre-automation, the process created during the 2003 SARS outbreak required a clinician to log into the laboratory system, extract a disease code and then manually enter the results into a data platform. This was hugely time consuming, taking up to three hours of a nurse’s day.
UiPath software robots are now responsible for this task. They process the data in a fraction of the time, distributing patient results in minutes and consequently freeing up to 18 hours of each IPC nurse’s time each week, and up to 936 hours over the course of a year. As a result, the healthcare professionals can spend more time caring for their patients and less time on repetitive tasks and admin work.
Is there any possibility of error with software robots, compared to humans?
By nature, humans are prone to make mistakes, especially when working under pressure, under strict deadlines and while handling a large volume of data while performing repetitive tasks.
Once taught the process, software robots, on the other hand, will follow the same steps every time without the risk of the inevitable human error. Simply speaking, robots can perform data-intensive tasks more quickly and accurately than humans can.
Which members of staff benefit the most, and what can they do with the time saved?
In the case of Mater Hospital, the IPC unit has adopted a robot for every nurse approach. This means that every nurse in the department has access to a robot to help reduce the burden of their admin work. Rather than spending time entering test results, they can focus on the work that requires their human ingenuity, empathy and skill – taking care of their patients.
In other sectors, the story is no different. Every job will have some repetitive nature to it. Whether that be a finance department processing thousands of invoices a day or simply having to send one daily email. If a task is repetitive and data-intensive, the chances are that a software robot can help. Just like with the nurses in the IPC, these employees can then focus on handling exceptions and on work that requires decision making or creativity - the work that people enjoy doing.
How can software robots most benefit healthcare providers both during a pandemic and beyond?
When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, software robots were deployed to lessen the administrative strain healthcare professionals were facing and give them more time to care for an increased number of patients. With hospitals around the world at capacity, every moment with a patient counted.
Now, the NHS and other healthcare providers face a huge backlog of routine surgeries and procedures following cancellations during the pandemic. In the UK alone, 5 million people are waiting for treatment and it’s estimated that this could cause 6,400 excess deaths by the end of next year if the problem isn’t rectified.
Many healthcare organisations have now acquired the skills needed to deploy automation, therefore it will be easier for them to build more robots to respond to the backlog going forwards. Software robots that had been processing registrations at COVID test sites, for example, could now be taught how to schedule procedures, process patient details or even manage procurement and recruitment to help streamline the processes associated with the backlog. The possibilities are vast.
The technology, however, should not be considered a short-term, tactical and reactive solution that can be deployed in times of crisis. Automation has the power to solve systematic problems that healthcare providers face year-round. Hospital managers should consider the wider challenge of dealing with endless repetitive work that saps the energy of professionals and turns attention away from patient care and discuss how investing in a long-term automation project could help alleviate these issues.
How widely adopted is this technology in healthcare at the moment?
Automation was being used in healthcare around the world before the pandemic, but the COVID-19 outbreak has certainly accelerated the trend.
Automation’s reach is wide. From the NHS Shared Business Service in the UK to the Cleveland Clinic in the US and healthcare organisations in the likes of Norway, India and Canada, we see a huge range of healthcare providers deploying automation technology.
Many healthcare providers, however, are still in the early stages of their journeys or are just discovering automation’s potential because of the pandemic. I expect to see the deployment of software robots in healthcare grow over the coming years as its benefits continue to be realised globally.
How do you see this technology evolving in the future?
If one thing is certain, it’s that the technology will continue to evolve and grow over time – and I believe there will come a point in time when all processes that can be automated, will be automated. This is known as the fully automated enterprise.
By joining all automation projects into one enterprise-wide effort, the healthcare industry can tap into the full benefits of the technology. This will involve software robots becoming increasingly intelligent in order to reach and improve more processes. Integrating the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning into automation, for example, will allow providers to reach non-rule-based processes too.
We are already seeing steps towards this being taken by NHS Shared Business Service, for example. The organisation, which provides non-clinical services to around two-thirds of all NHS provider trusts and every clinical commissioning organisation in the UK, is working to create an entire eco-system of robots. It believes that no automation should be looked at in isolation, but rather the technology should stretch across departments and functions. As such, inefficiencies in the care pathway can be significantly reduced, saving healthcare providers a substantial amount of time and money.