While many lament the rough days of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were some notable achievements that bode well for innovation in healthcare. Tom Lawry, US national director of artificial intelligence for health and life sciences at Microsoft, cites a few examples of this innovation in his 2022 book titled Hacking Healthcare.
For example, the Covid-19 Open Research Dataset fused together 47,000 scholarly articles and studies in a matter of weeks to provide a unified body of knowledge. Telehealth technologies also helped to reduce patient surges, opened access to care, conserved personal protective equipment and reduced disease transmission, growing by 38 times at its peak, according to a McKinsey & Company study. In addition, ‘hospital at home’ scenarios were tested by several health systems for the first time.
Despite these lessons, and multiple others that were learned during the pandemic, there are still many economic issues facing providers today. Consultancy firm Kaufman Hall noted in its 2022 National Hospital Flash Report that US hospitals are facing some of the worst margins since the pandemic started. Simultaneously, labour costs are increasing due to a labour shortage, while outpatient procedures, which often generate significant revenue, have also dropped precipitously.
Adding to the complexity is the consumerisation of healthcare, underscored by the different patient experiences that each generation expects. Younger, healthier members of Generation Z often have no primary care physician, opting to use retail outlets and urgent care centres for typical, non-fatal situations. On the other end of the spectrum is the World War II generation whose members are eager to have a meaningful relationship with their primary care physician, due to their cultural perspective and more chronic healthcare needs. And then there are the retail health clinic providers entering the market, like CVS, Walgreens, Kroger, and Best Buy in the USA.
With all these pressures on our healthcare providers, what is the right course of action when bringing innovation to healthcare delivery? From what we’ve been reading and what my customers are telling me, leading providers are innovating first in areas that automate staff-intensive, non-clinical workflows. Minimising repetitive administrative tasks reduces burnout, frees up staff for more patient-centric work, and improves both patient and staff satisfaction.
For example, Baptist Health in Northeast Florida recently engaged Microsoft partner Hyro to enhance patient and staff experiences using its adaptive, language-based artificial intelligence assistants. The solution offloads repetitive, administrative tasks, like password resets. While seemingly trivial, this need was prompted by Baptist Health’s implementation of Epic’s electronic health record. The team at Baptist Health knew that standardising on Epic would generate an increased volume of calls to the IT service desk. By implementing Hyro’s solution, the team was able to reduce frustration and downtime for staff members. Typically, Hyro can deploy the solution in a matter of weeks and Baptist Health saw benefits just 10 days after implementation.
During the pandemic, Hyro also worked with Novant Health, a healthcare provider with 18 medical centres and hundreds of clinics in North Carolina, USA. Novant was already using Hyro’s virtual assistant on its website homepage to help patients find physicians, navigate efficiently using the search functionality, and book appointments. Faced with a sudden increase in concerned callers and the need to schedule vaccinations, Novant deployed VAXA, Hyro’s AI-powered Covid-19 vaccine access solution, which offered 24/7 coverage for its call centre.
Almost immediately, VAXA drastically reduced patient wait times from an average of eight minutes to three seconds. In the early days of the pandemic when a high volume of patients was seeking reliable information, VAXA was able to field and resolve 85 per cent of Novant’s calls. Novant also found that Hyro’s solution helped to funnel callers who were looking for help scheduling a vaccination appointment, enabling the company to expand its patient base by offering additional help beyond Covid-19 services.
Another example is RxLightning, a company focused on automating the process of prescribing and managing speciality medications. Typically, these medications, like oncology drugs, rely on paper forms being faxed between the pharmacies, clinicians and payers. Imagine being diagnosed with cancer, and then waiting weeks for your treatment, while your prescription gets faxed around.
In contrast, RxLightning’s technology simplifies this cumbersome process by giving healthcare providers a way to easily submit speciality drug enrolment and patient assistance applications through a single digital source. RxLightning has digitised forms for over 1,200 speciality medications to quickly get patients started on the therapies they need. RxLightning reduces the administrative burden, streamlines communication with the speciality pharmacy and hubs, and ultimately accelerates speed to therapy for patients.
Additionally, the platform safely and securely captures patient information to allow for future enrolments and applications to be submitted without delay. Designed with clinicians in mind, the RxLightning solution is free for physicians, making it both affordable and transformational for them and their patients.
Recently, American Oncology Network (AON) and RxLightning partnered to provide AON’s community oncology practices with a digital approach to financial assistance enrolment for speciality medications. This partnership simplifies speciality medication enrolment for AON’s healthcare providers and gives patients quicker access to life-saving medications.
Another interesting innovation comes from Vidatak, a company dedicated to giving a voice to patients who cannot speak at all or do not speak the language of their provider. Its enterprise application VidaTalk is designed to help patients and caregivers overcome speech and language barriers to communicate effectively.
According to Vidatak, 70 per cent of non-English-speaking patients have insufficient verbal interactions with staff, leaving them vulnerable to missed pain, crucial changes in symptoms, and delayed treatment. VidaTalk changes this by placing control of language access and speech ability in the hands of the patient. VidaTalk has 40 language profiles built in with validated pre-set communications for routine care. Often, nurses avoid using interpreters because they’re too difficult to access and they find it disruptive to their workflow. Interpreter services that take place by phone or video have increasing wait times, while designated interpreter computers can be hard to track down. To combat this, VidaTalk is installed on existing bedside tablets and providers’ phones, dramatically increasing the accessibility of human interpreters for every healthcare conversation.
VidaTalk features a touch-to-talk interface, enabling intubated patients or those with a tracheotomy to communicate with staff via the app, instead of resorting to pointing and hand gestures. It includes the most common healthcare statements, with big, easy buttons that require very little dexterity.
As we look ahead, it’s imperative that all of us – innovators, implementers and users alike – are ready for the next wave of technologies to improve operational efficiency. This means using technology to make data interoperable and usable; creating a culture that fosters digital transformation; focusing on the needs of patients, clinicians and staff, especially in relation to workflows; and ensuring security isn’t sacrificed in the rush to innovate.
Sally Ann Frank is worldwide lead for health and life sciences at Microsoft for Startups and Tim Gray is a healthcare industry advisor at Microsoft and former health system chief information officer
This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.