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Expert says machines will carry out most tasks by 2025

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Automated healthcare could both reduce costs for hospitals and improve efficiency

The aim of introducing automation into the public sector and healthcare is not just to increase efficiency and reduce costs, but also to improve outcomes across an ageing population. In an exclusive article for Health Tech World Sascha Giese, head geek at SolarWinds asks if we are ready for healthcare automation.

By 2025, half of all work tasks will be carried out by machines. This jaw-dropping prediction, which came last year from the World Economic Forum, highlights the sheer scale of the change automation will bring to the world. In common with other ubiquitous technology-led trends of the past few decades, it brings both opportunity and risk. Automation will create change across every sector of the economy and working life, including one of the most important of all: healthcare.

Without doubt, automation and its associated technologies, from artificial intelligence (AI) to machine learning, possess huge potential to improve the services offered to the public. This year, the benefits of automation have never been clearer, as organisations have accelerated their use of technology to help meet the needs of people in lockdown by providing virtual access to advice, information, and treatment, for example.

However, the transition to implementing automation in healthcare so it becomes a proven and accepted norm will require considerable care. But if changes can be introduced, organisations will benefit from increased speed and efficiency, with employees able to spend more time working directly with other colleagues and the public to ensure they receive the services they need.

Building a Technological Society

Sascha Giese – SolarWinds

Many people across society— even pre-pandemic— relied on online services to support various aspects of daily life. The unprecedented levels of enforced isolation and remote working have hugely accelerated the acceptance of technology as a cultural and lifestyle norm. The public sector has moved quickly to utilise digital services to address an urgent health crisis, while allowing people to access vital services they have been prevented from using in person.

The changes are dramatic. A report last year from analyst firm Frost & Sullivan, estimated demand for telehealth technology would see a “staggering seven fold growth by 2025” in the U.S. alone. And in the U.K., the COVID-19 crisis required services to adapt at a pace which the New York Times characterised as “10 years of change in one week.”

But members of the public aren’t just passengers on this journey. They want the same experience from healthcare services as they do from online retailers and businesses. For example, in some situations, citizens may have previously been required to print forms from government websites, fill them in by hand, and post them to the relevant department. When it arrives, an employee has to open all the envelopes, sort through the contents and scan the relevant items into their system to be processed.

This is the antithesis of modern automation, and as these hybrid technology and manual processes go fully online, technology can automate actions based on the user’s responses to questions, with a massive improvement in efficiency. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, with healthcare automation extending from administrative tasks into the provision of diagnostic services and treatment.

Accepting automation as a method for improving healthcare provision and outcomes is one thing—taking steps to implement it is another challenge altogether. One of the biggest obstacles the public sector faces on this journey is attracting the talent required to integrate automation into existing processes. There’s also a huge training, reskilling, and upskilling challenge facing healthcare providers as they seek to prepare the workforce for different roles and responsibilities.

The inevitable growth in the application of automation and AI in healthcare also raises some important ethical considerations. As technology becomes more advanced and its uses in healthcare expand, organisations need to recognise the importance of ensuring AI is used fairly and equally for all patients and staff alike.

Trust is vital and may be difficult to build if patient health is being assessed by advanced technologies where transparency and the ability to question judgement may be diminished. And when algorithms are employed to calculate how much people pay for services in private healthcare, for example, the result must meet an extremely high standard for accuracy and fairness.

Real World Benefits

The aim of introducing automation into the public sector in general and healthcare in particular is not just to increase efficiency and reduce costs, but also to improve outcomes across an ageing population. But what can be achieved and where will the focus of investment and innovation fall? There are a few key areas:

Cost reduction—Given the financial pressures public healthcare services are continually under, automation can be hugely cost-effective if it’s introduced in the right areas. For example, by automating simple and repetitive tasks, employees can focus more on the crucial aspects of their work that remain reliant on human input or interaction, while the technology handles the minor tasks and even speeds them up.

Meeting public expectations—Digital society is increasingly focused on user experience and the need to deliver effective, well designed online services. The rise of cloud-based “as-a-Service” technologies has gone a long way to leveling the playing field between the experiences offered by public and private sectors, and increasingly, automated healthcare services will focus on the quality of the experience as well as the quality of care.

Increased career and development opportunities—The growth of automation is likely to give people greater opportunity and time to devote to learning and development. For healthcare professionals, where continuous training improvement is frequently a feature of their working lives, this could deliver important benefits.

The arrival of automation across the healthcare sector is already well underway. But we are much closer to the start of the journey than the end, and the sector is likely to see accelerating change in the next few years alone. Properly funded and well designed, everyone should benefit.

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