AI, automation, and the future of work in hospitals

February 2, 2021

The nature of work – and the workplace – is changing. Across industries, new technologies, including artificial intelligence and automation, are rapidly impacting how work gets done and even the role that human employees play in execution. AI’s capabilities have grown exponentially in recent years due to massive gains in computing power and the datasets needed to train AI algorithms. New applications are constantly emerging, and most industries have only scratched the surface of the potential of artificial intelligence. As adoption of AI grows, spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are predicting that these technologies will fundamentally change the landscape of work in the same magnitude as the Industrial Revolution, including the work done at hospitals and health systems across the country. Many people think of healthcare as an industry that relies heavily on human interaction, compared to say, distribution. And while this is true for patient care, there is a vast and complicated administrative side that supports and enables every healthcare action today. It’s these workflows, from supply chain to revenue cycle to countless hours of work in EHRs, that automation and AI in healthcare will radically alter. And in so doing, it will transform the healthcare industry and the future of work in the hospital forever.

Artificial intelligence has the potential to disrupt healthcare 

The term “artificial intelligence” encompasses a range of technologies, from simple robotic process automation (RPA) to robotics to deep neural networks that find hidden insights in big data. Together, they possess the capability of transforming the healthcare industry, at every level. When you research healthcare AI, the sheer number and variety of potential applications quickly become apparent. Drug development, personalized medicine, predictive analytics, robot-assisted surgery – all these will benefit from advances in AI. But perhaps the biggest benefit and biggest change will be the automation of administrative tasks that accompany every step of the healthcare journey. Deployment of AI in these areas is fiscally realistic, currently achievable, and will bring an enormous boost to the productivity of health systems and every healthcare worker.  Today, many healthcare workers are bogged down by tedious data entry and a growing backlog of administrative tasks. Managing inventory and checking for expirations, submitting claims and correcting denials, processing invoices and updating contracts, updating EHRs – most hospitals are chronically behind in all of these areas. Employees are left trying to keep up, while these processes drain their morale and cause revenue leaks due to care delays and data entry errors. But strides in natural language processing, computer vision, and machine learning are vastly increasing today’s applications of operational AI, making it possible to automate many of these tasks. At the same time, as AI completes more work, learns and collects more data, AI’s ability to do more than simply robotic tasks will continue to grow. AI is beginning to share insights and opportunities for improvement, helping hospitals at a macro level while assisting individual employees in their day-to-day jobs. Only when artificial intelligence and AI become more ingrained in our hospitals, freeing healthcare workers at all levels from the inescapable quicksand of operational tasks, will the industry actually be able to tackle bigger problems and deliver better healthcare for all. However, these gains from AI will not come without a massive shift in the hospital workplace. As hospitals adopt operational AI and automation, healthcare workers’ jobs will need to change.

Automation and AI will change how we work

McKinsey estimates that about half of the activities, not jobs, carried out by workers could be automated. This means that instead of replacing jobs, workers will be working alongside machines, creating what is called “the augmented workforce.” The hospital is no exception.  Intelligent automation will take on many of the repetitive workflows in the hospital, freeing human employees to tackle jobs that need a human touch. Healthcare employees will be able to focus on negotiating contracts, managing complex denials, communicating with patients, direct patient care, and other high-level strategic initiatives. And AI will still be there to help with these administrative tasks as well, working alongside healthcare employees, providing key data exactly when it's needed – generating insights to help them work smarter, and checking for errors throughout their daily work.  As an example, let’s examine denials management. The majority of denials management can already be automated, including correct errors and resubmitting, reducing the need for human involvement. But for those denied claims that AI can’t handle, the denial gets sent to a human employee. But AI’s role doesn’t stop there: when it alerts the human employee to the problem, it can also provide key data points, errors that were already checked, or estimate what the problem is, greatly reducing the time needed to address the issue. If the same problem seems to happen over and over again, AI can catch that too, providing insight into a common problem that a human can fix on the front end, stopping that error from ever happening again. From start to finish, whether or not a human employee is involved, artificial intelligence can make the entire denials management workflow smarter and more efficient.  This type of adaptation can occur for thousands of workflows in the hospital, altering what jobs healthcare workers complete and how they complete them. As Deloitte explains, AI can be a tool, assistant, peer, or even manager of processes. When viewed with this perspective, you can see that no job will be immune from the positive impact of artificial intelligence. From the surgeon choosing surgical supplies with the aid of predictive analytics to the revenue cycle manager overseeing the claims automations, every employee will need to evolve with the realities of the changing workplace.  The augmented workforce of the future is coming. Automation and AI may not be eliminating jobs in the traditional sense, but it will change them. The industry needs to prepare for these changes to fully realize the benefits of artificial intelligence and care for patients and employees. 

Healthcare needs to prepare for the future of work – powered by AI

As health systems look at how to adopt widespread AI, they need to be simultaneously thinking about how this will change their enterprise. Without addressing both the technology and the workers, they won’t be able to fully realize the benefits of the transformative technologies.    There will be new in-demand skills, and job descriptions will shift. New positions will be created, and others may be eliminated. Mid-career employees will have the opportunity to upskill and learn new processes. Healthcare organizations should support internal training and career development opportunities. The industry as a whole needs to ensure that their education and credentialing system accurately reflects the new skill demands and technological competence.  At the hospital itself, a shift in mindset will need to occur in order to reach widespread adoption of AI. Healthcare employees may be apprehensive of the technologies and be reticent to adopt for fear of change or fear of job elimination, so any new initiatives need to be clearly explained, including how it will impact employees. AI and automation shouldn’t be feared; it should be making people’s jobs more meaningful and effective. That goal and vision of putting humans back to human-centric work needs to be communicated and shown at every step of the way. 

The future of work has already begun

Automation and AI are already being adopted throughout the healthcare industry and the hospitals themselves. As these technologies irreversibly change the workplace, it’s up to all of us to ensure that they’re deployed responsibly and create a future of work that is better and brighter for everyone – employees, providers, payers and patients.  At Olive, we are shaping the future of work at health systems across the country with AI. Our solutions, Olive Works and Olive Helps, are automating work and delivering efficiencies that improve the workplace and reduce costs throughout the system. Olive’s creating AI-Powered Hospitals, where AI seamlessly works behind the scenes to connect the enterprise, providing value and insights across the entire healthcare system.