Improving workflow leads to a virtuous cycle of process enhancement.

Thomas R.

Let's face it: Workflow automation isn't sexy. It doesn't project the allure of ACOs or HIEs or model homes. But it should. That's because workflow automation is what will, in large part, be the engine that powers new healthcare models.

Automation is all about efficiency and effectiveness. Yes, it speeds processes and lowers costs, but it's more than that. When done right, workflow automation:

Generates data that leads to best practices. With automation comes data capture. Every action is recorded by activity type, by user, by case or by patient — even by date and time. Aggregating that data and then tracking trends and results yield patterns of activity — approaches to problem solving — worth institutionalizing.

Measures performance to change behavior. The Achilles' heel of best practices? Bad behavior. Just as workflow automation can help embed best practices within an organization, it removes impediments to instilling them in the individuals who must execute them. Workflow automation is change management on steroids. It makes desired change routine and replicable, minimizing human error and eliminating personal preferences. 

Frees up people to do what technology can't. Workflow automation is ideal for repetitive, labor-intensive work. Employing people, for example, to input the same information in a multitude of forms is ludicrous when auto-populating fields are available. Allocate people (and labor costs) for thinking and applying insight to data and the development and introduction of best practices.

It's that human aptitude, abundantly more available when ministerial tasks are automated, that helps generate more ideas and refinements based on automatically generated business intelligence. With the additional ideas and refinements, more process improvements are incorporated in an automated workflow. It becomes a virtuous cycle of efficiency.

Demonstrable difference, quantifiable results

The need for process improvements is only growing. Today, we face more regulatory requirements, increasing financial pressures, a shrinking workforce and an older, sicker patient population. Providers must do more with less. With workflow automation, they can.

Leveraging technology with workflow automation frees clinicians to spend more time with patients. At Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk, Va., part of Sentara Healthcare, one secretary trained to use patient-transition software as a service began handling all placement-related administrative tasks for a team of 13 case managers who could then focus more on care coordination. That redirection of resources helped contribute to a 10 percent increase in patient-satisfaction ratings.

We have found that clinicians who regularly receive, review and respond to data achieve better care outcomes that in turn generate better financial results. A review of aggregated 2010 data for 168 Curaspan hospital customers with 150 beds or more reveals a 14 percent readmission rate overall versus approximately 20 percent nationwide; they cut readmissions overall for the second year in a row and saved on average about $1.5 million each.

The new frontier of workflow automation

Those providers who've embraced workflow automation and are seeing the results — clinical and financial — will be the early adopters of the next incarnation of workflow automation: synchronized patient management. It's a fully integrated approach to patient management that synchronizes the workflow activities of all participants across the continuum of care.

Hospitals, post-acute providers and payers, for example, will share a role-specific view of the same patient-centric data and be able to better coordinate their work. Utilization management will be enhanced. Concurrent reviews will be expedited, resources maximized and patient care improved.

Synchronized patient management will be what makes new models of care work. Just as an automated assembly line helped transform the auto industry, a greater reliance on more sophisticated workflow automation will be the engine behind a real transformation in healthcare.        

Thomas R. Ferry is president and CEO of Curaspan Health Group, headquartered in Newton, Mass.
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