Healthcare Automation: Siri will see you now

Healthcare is one of the last major industries to truly embrace automation. The retail and banking industries have long supported the use of automation, which allows us the convenience of self-checkout at the supermarket and depositing a paycheck at an ATM. Robotics is currently used in the manufacturing and production of nearly every product under the sun, yet we still have pharmacy technicians counting by fives at the local drugstore. In addition, the majority of physicians are still handwriting prescriptions, chart notes, and diagnostic tests, which are then filed by a receptionist in a one department, only to be misplaced by a different receptionist, never to be seen again. This  outdated system leads to incredible inefficiencies including duplicate procedures, unnecessary hospital admissions, and ultimately ends up adding a huge amount of unnecessary burden to the healthcare system.

Depending on the source, it is estimated that administrative costs account for 7% of total healthcare costs in the United States, which equates to approximately 175 billion dollars annually. In addition, there is a huge amount of waste not included in the administrative costs due to massive overhead at healthcare institutions and inefficient models of care. We need next generation technology that both automates repetitive tasks and is scalable.

Currently in this space, Athenahealth is automating practice management, Allscripts is finally making e-prescribing a reality, companies like TCGrx and McKesson are automating pharmacy workflow and startups like Drchrono are trying to pickup where Google Health left off. There is a huge amount of opportunity in for other clever healthcare hacks to automate repetitive tasks.

The winning combination for a successful healthcare automation company is better care at a lower cost. There was an interesting article in the Atlantic this week, which discussed an innovative new practice in California that has cut both hospitalization rates and amputation rates among diabetics significantly while spending 18% less than the national average per patient. They monitor patients remotely through the use of wireless scales and blood pressure cuffs, and are exploring ways to remotely monitor patient’s glucose levels. This allows them to catch a problem before it escalates, leading to decreased costs downstream. Remote monitoring is a good example of a healthcare hack, because none of the technology (wireless scales, blood pressure cuffs, and glucose monitors) is particularly novel. The value is in the unique combination of technologies, which allows for an increased level of care at a lower cost.

Another good example of healthcare automation that is efficient, scalable, and eliminates the need for repetitive tasks is multi-dose medication packaging. These machines package a patient’s medications in sealed packets based on the time of administration, while decreasing the personnel needed to fill the same number of prescriptions. The packaging increases patient compliance, especially in the elderly, because they are no longer required to organize their multitude of pills (decreased human error), and are able to easily track whether they missed a dose (date/time is printed on each packet). The increased patient compliance leads to decreased hospital admissions, which is associated with significant cost savings for both the patient and the overall healthcare system.

How can automation be used to bring about the most effective changes in healthcare? Will you eventually dial up Watson for healthcare advice, or pick up your prescriptions from an automated prescription kiosk?  What specific legal and regulatory hurdles do we face as we attempt to change healthcare for the better? And most importantly, how can you personally be a part of this paradigm shift and help lead healthcare boldly into the 21st century?

Written by TJ Parker, a Founding Hacker for Hacking Medicine.

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