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December 19, 2022

Intelligent Automation in Healthcare

Automation has been a boon in many industries, enabling the realization of efficiencies in everything from manufacturing to hospitality. But healthcare involves quite a few serious considerations that don’t come into play in building a car or taking a reservation, which might explain why as an industry, healthcare has been slower to implement automation. 

What is Healthcare Automation?

The mention of healthcare automation likely conjures ideas about robotic surgery or the machines that monitor patients when they’re inpatients at a facility. And while those things are definitely a part of healthcare automation, there is a significantly more pressing need focused around data and the sheer inability of humans to keep up with it as it’s generated and manipulated in the complex process of caring for patients. 

A recent study published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association (JMLA) noted that there is more medical data being generated than doctors can possibly keep up with. In order to stay abreast of all the discoveries and literature relevant to the medical field, the study says physicians would need to spend “627.5 hours per month (29 hours per weekday) or 3.6 FTEs of physician time. In other words, it is impossible for a physician to digest all relevant literature in their field.”

In this case, the obvious (but certainly not simple) answer involves automations that can parse, categorize, and systematize key information to make it accessible when a doctor needs it. That would likely involve contextual and AI-driven search technology and an application that doctors can access easily. The article notes that while medical training used to be very much about memorization, today it is shifting to methodology instead. Less “what do you know” and more “where can you find what you need?”

A variety of technologies are approaching this problem - one that’s very intriguing works to categorize and analyze immense amounts of patient data in specific disease states or specific combinations of symptoms and genetic characteristics. (As described by our CTO Mike Supeck when he talked about Scipher Medicine in this post). 

Another area where automation is promising in the healthcare arena is in the effort to speed new drugs and treatments to market. Large swaths of data need to be analyzed more quickly than humans are capable of doing, but automation is promising in this area (and could one day make clinical trials as we know them now obsolete).

Workflow Automation in Healthcare is Critical

The previous examples are patient-focused automation solutions, but inside the hospital, in the day-to-day workflows of staff and providers, there are many places where automation can be implemented to create significant benefits: 

Best Ways to Implement Workflow Automation in Healthcare

Our Director of Global Sales and Marketing recently spoke to Network Radiation Safety Officer Chris Mitchell, of Kettering Health, about the healthcare workflow automations he has overseen in his multi-decade career. 

At Kettering, Chris manages eight hospitals and five cardiac clinics under a broad scope license for radioactive materials, along with 55 sites for which Kettering Health has responsibility. His department manages regulatory compliance for those two entities as well as accreditation in radiology and nuclear medicine (Accreditation Commission for Healthcare - ACHC). His department also has responsibility for magnetic resonance (MR) safety for the network.

With such a large swath of responsibility, automating the quality control workflow made sense. Prior to bringing a tool onboard, Chris noted that he would have to travel constantly to all the sites to conduct audits in person, since documentation was done on paper or in Excel spreadsheets. Kettering Health chose the ZapIT tool to bring that documentation process online, and Chris noted that Kettering also uses the application to track their lead aprons and other equipment, making his role significantly more streamlined. 

How Can a Large Healthcare Organization Implement Workflow Automation?

One of the things that Chris brought to light in the conversation centered around the actual implementation process. Any new technology introduced in healthcare will meet with opposition, simply because asking an already over-tasked group of people to slow down, learn something new, and potentially lose time when there is none to spare is a difficult proposition. 

The implementation of Kettering Health’s automation software in radiology and radiation oncology wasn’t without pushback, but Chris offered several key ideas that can help other big multi-site organizations implement a successful automation project. 

1. Vet the technology. 

Chris noted that one of the previous hospitals where he’d worked had been a beta site for ZapIT in the mid 2010s. When he proposed implementation of ZapIT in 2021 at Kettering Health, he was able to note dramatic improvements, offering reassurance to stakeholders that this technology was not brand new, and that he had first-hand experience indicating it was the right solution. Chris was able to tell his stakeholders, “I can assure you I have used this now at another facility. We've had it going, it works beautifully.”

2. Get stakeholder buy-in. 

Everyone involved in an implementation has to be at least somewhat willing to adapt to new processes and procedures, and that means they need to be well informed about the process they’re agreeing to. They need to believe that the new technology will help them in some critical way, which will make them willing to put in the time and effort to get it running and learn to use it. They also have to know that everyone else is on board. An administrator cannot push new technology down the throat of a department and expect success; likewise, a radiology department administrator cannot force a new product on a hospital administration that is unwilling to adapt to it. 

Chris noted, “It’s really important to get the buy-in of the leadership. Our role from a radiation safety and a regulatory perspective is to hold each other accountable.” 

3. Accept that there will be a learning curve.

Another important aspect of any new workflow automation implementation is ramp-up time. Chris notes that at first, Kettering Health was running two parallel systems, which entailed more work instead of less. But he was able to audit the new implementation and demonstrate to users how much time it actually saved them compared to the previous method. By demonstrating this time savings in a meaningful way, he was able to transition staff fully to the new method, but it did take time. 

4. Offer comprehensive training. 

Chris explained that when ZapIT was implemented in his organization, his department put out education, what he called “a step-by-step on quality control.” Kettering went above and beyond in an effort to smooth the transition, but another key is to select a technology that includes robust and accessible training, preferably on site and whenever needed. 

High Stakes in Healthcare Automation

The stakes are high in healthcare, so it makes sense that technology implementations and workflow automations are entered into cautiously. The example of Chris Mitchell and Kettering Health should offer reassurance that with careful thought and patient action, automation in healthcare can bring about significant benefits. 

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In the near future, Enzee’s platform will provide the same features from radiology and radiation oncology to the entire hospital equipment QA program and also connect to existing compliance and test tracking apps, providing a holistic picture of a facility’s compliance and quality across personnel and departments.