Jane C. Kaye
- Healthcare finance departments can use artificial intelligence to reduce repetitive work and allow employees to take on roles that are more analytical.
- Removing repetitive work from employees’ job descriptions can boost employee satisfaction, recruitment and retention.
- Although a financial ROI may not be immediately evident from AI applications, productivity and efficiency can be expected to increase — and cost savings likely will accrue down the line.
We’re seeing it everywhere. It’s Siri, it’s Alexa, it’s Google. It can suggest email responses, predict your Netflix preferences, understand your online shopping behavior. It’s the promise of a future where cars drive themselves and robots do the thinking. It’s artificial intelligence (AI). And it’s less dystopian than it may sound.
AI can be broadly defined as the development of computer systems able to perform tasks that typically require human intelligence. Applied to business, AI allows organizations to automate repetitive processes through learning — and it’s changing the type of work employees expect to do and the pace at which it gets done.
The healthcare industry is no exception. But while the clinical side is seeing a boom in flashy AI technology, from surgical robots to automated diagnosing, back-end financial operations have been slower to adapt.
What would an AI-optimized healthcare financial system look like? By simplifying and streamlining repetitive tasks, AI technologies can make our work in healthcare finance more human: creating space for critical thinking, opening up new career pathways, allowing employees to better control processes and potentially even contributing to lower healthcare costs.
How AI can be applied to healthcare finance
Most of the immediate and relevant AI applications in healthcare finance center on streamlining data-gathering through robotic process automation (RPA). Within healthcare finance, RPA typically applies to repetitive tasks like combining billing data from across disparate sources or performing time- and labor-intensive monthly account reconciliations.
Brian Huggins, corporate controller at Boston-based Partners HealthCare, has been working to implement such efficiencies across his organization’s accounting operations. Partners continues to merge and expand, increasingly demanding an efficient financial operation to promote strategic growth.
Some of the biggest benefits from process improvement are seen in the account reconciliation part of the monthly financial statement close, Huggins said. In the traditional closing process, accountants focus on reconciling transactions — a repetitive task with little added value. RPA tools enable employees to write a command that quickly reconciles transactions and highlights errors or mismatches, thereby freeing time for analysis focused on understanding, correcting and preventing those mismatches.
In this way, RPA allows finance staff to evolve in their roles, increasing both their capacity for analytical thinking and the accuracy of the information analyzed.
“No matter how proficient machines become in automating transactional accounting tasks, they can’t analyze the data,” said Vin Messina, CPA, strategic account manager at BlackLine, a software company that supplies cloud-based financial automation solutions. “You need people to do that.”
Automation technology allows for more strategic hiring to accompany expansion, thereby contributing to a reduction in healthcare administrative costs, Huggins and Messina noted.
Keeping pace with a new generation of worker
In New Jersey, John Doll, CFO of RWJBarnabas Health, is piloting similar strategies. “A challenge we have is disconnected systems requiring repetitive work,” he said. “And at the same time, we’re seeing a new generation of workers looking for a different type of job.”
Technologically minded millennials are seeking a level of employment that enables them to think critically, understand the big picture and make informed decisions. If entry-level, disconnected and repetitive work can be automated through RPA tools, employees can focus on overseeing and managing those processes. RWJBarnabas Health’s finance team is exploring process automation for people-intensive, repetitive tasks such as insurance follow-up or cash posting.
Encouraging employees to do more high-level thinking, data analysis and reporting also can help increase satisfaction and retention and catalyze career growth, Doll said. Indeed, process automation opens up new and different career paths for healthcare finance employees who are interested in RPA’s more technical applications.
RPA technology implementation and maintenance brings a demand for employees with specific organizational knowledge and technical mindsets, for example. Huggins has been identifying individuals who know the organization, teams and processes and can build bots to operate within those systems.
A people-centric implementation approach
“The best finance leaders are going to use AI as an opportunity to upskill their team by eliminating repetitive tasks that are being executed within the finance function and focusing on more value-add tasks that will be more analytical in nature and provide more insight to the business,” said Michael George, audit partner at PwC.
Although Huggins led the RPA system transformation at Partners, he entrusted his team — those closest to the everyday work and technology — with the decision of which software system to implement. He then identified a handful of managers to run the software rollout. The approach helped mitigate any concerns about the new system while empowering employees to elevate their abilities.
Realizing an ROI from AI
Because it’s a costly investment for a healthcare organization, AI automation technology brings pressure to demonstrate an immediate ROI. But it’s an iterative process, creating a variety of organizational impacts that aren’t immediately quantifiable.
The technology can elevate the employee experience and open up new career opportunities while creating efficiencies that allow health systems to scale up strategically. Use of AI in healthcare finance can save time, reduce errors, increase capacity and, in turn, lower the administrative cost of providing healthcare.
“You think about everything on the clinical side, where they’re using AI to make better, more informed decisions on healthcare,” Huggins said. “I have to imagine that if we can make better, more informed financial decisions, we’d ultimately come to a lower cost. What I do know now, though, is that we’re more efficient.”
Health systems already are realizing what Huggins refers to as “soft-dollar savings”: increases in the efficiency of financial operations and the productivity of employees. While cost savings may be ahead, AI can immediately benefit the finance workforce through the cultivation of a more human way of functioning.