Real-Time Data Will be Key to Patient Access and Increasing Volumes 

If 2020 was the year of the shock of the global COVID pandemic on health systems and hospitals, 2021 was the year of healthcare delivery organizations’ response to the shock. As organizations sought to rebound financially, they faced the challenges of controlling costs while trying to return to pre-2020 volumes, along with the continued fight to care for individuals affected by COVID and its variants.

2022 needs to be defined by healthcare’s ability to proactively manage their patients, volumes, staff, and financial position. That proactiveness will require the use of data not to look backward but to look forward.

Increasingly, I believe healthcare delivery organizations’ financial and operational success will depend on their ability to know what will happen next for patients, providers, healthcare workers, hospitals, communities, and to manage what’s coming proactively. The past two years have been defined by the rapid reaction to the challenges of a global pandemic and the subsequent work to rebound operationally, clinically, and financially.    

Leveraging artificial intelligence, healthcare delivery organizations are primed to accelerate optimization of hospital operations, so critically needed in hospitals today. Today, efficiency and fiscal responsibility are less about saving money and more about both patient access and the working environment of healthcare staffs as COVID settles in as a lasting concern. Two areas which stand to gain tremendously from a move to proactive management and are top-of-mind for healthcare leaders include the financial success of the surgical venue, as well as the staffing shortage crisis occurring across healthcare.  

Continued Focus on Increasing Surgical Volumes

While elective surgeries rebounded in 2021, they largely have not reached the levels prior to the US Surgeon General and American College of Surgeons recommendation to halt elective surgeries in 2020.  There is an ongoing focus to increase volumes in 2022 as hospitals continue to attempt to financially rebound, but the current Omicron is forcing some hospitals, regions, and states to again pause elective procedures. Despite an expected focus on increasing volumes, there are barriers to success including workforce shortages, inpatient bed availability, and OR capacity.

These barriers suggest a holistic approach to health system operations is required to continue to rebound surgical volumes. Optimizing financial performance in the OR means also optimizing the systems’ ability to care for patients before, during, and after surgery. It also means a laser focus on the efficiency of surgical operations like block time allocation, OR turnover time, and even the use of flip rooms.

Operating room logistics and scheduling data have long been digitized, yet the manner in which they operate has largely not leveraged that data to drive efficiency. Surgical operations reporting generally looks back instead of forward. Data science using artificially intelligent software can offer predictive capabilities that drive proactive management of surgical block utilization, improvement in OR turnover time, and address systematic barriers to patient access and increasing volumes. AI also has the power to increase surgeons’ participation in the block scheduling process in a way that maximizes surgeon satisfaction through increased engagement and specific system knowledge of their tendencies and preferences in order to positively impact overall OR utilization.

Address the Healthcare Worker Shortage

A simple internet search yields many facts and figures attempting to gauge the realities of our healthcare workforce crisis, all of which are disturbing. Some of the concerns include:

  • Sicker Patients + Less Supply – The number of full-time equivalent (FTE) staff per adjusted occupied bed has decreased 3% since the start of the pandemic, while patient acuity has increased 6% over the same time frame.
  • Labor Expense Spikes – Hospitals have experienced a 15.6% increase in labor expenses per adjusted discharge since September 2019 as they’ve had to turn to contracted labor to care for patients. This cost increase, among other concerns, has led credit agency Moody’s to forecast a decrease in hospital margins that were already suffering.
  • Decline Likely to Continue – A Washington Post Kaiser Foundation Poll in April 2021 exposed that nearly 3 in 10 healthcare workers have weighed leaving the profession. In a November 2021 survey of over 200 registered nurses conducted by Hospital IQ, a staggering 90% reported they would consider leaving the profession in the next year, and 71% with 15+ years of experience reported they are considering leaving the profession in the next couple of months.

As organizations seek to address staffing shortages and meet the healthcare needs of their communities, expect that there will be a heavy focus on recruiting and staff retention in the form of compensation and benefit design. It is important that organizations also consider the working environment. Flexible hours, less floating, and more proactive management can have an enormous impact on the daily satisfaction of healthcare workers.

How AI Can Help Health Systems

It is likely nearly every health system and hospital will be challenged to deliver the same or more patient care in 2022 with fewer healthcare workers. The workload of every individual healthcare worker will therefore increase. In order to best minimize the impact of their dwindled workforce, organizations must become more proactive in staff planning. There is power in operational data that is not being leveraged today. Hospital data can predict census by unit, staffing requirements according to patient need and hospital operating procedures, unit staff shortages/surpluses, and more. Concurrently, operational data can identify individuals who have already been taxed by extended hours, floating, and other burdens.  Putting operational data to work should be a priority for healthcare leaders. In so doing, they’ll have the tools to proactively manage their staff to deliver the best possible care – a win for healthcare workers, hospitals, patients, and communities.

A former colleague of mine often says, “The next decade of healthcare will be defined by cost.” In this broad statement, he is referring to the unsustainable growth in the cost of healthcare, the shift to value-based business models, and the locations and venues in which healthcare is delivered. He is also referring to the systematic improvement that needs to occur in healthcare regarding how organizations manage processes and people. Core to that systematic improvement is a move away from the reactive management of old in favor of a focus on what will happen next. Planning based on a future state helps align resources in the most cost-effective manner with the highest potential impact. The two examples I highlighted, surgical volume management and the staffing crisis, are top of mind, but are the tip of a very long, artificial intelligence spear.