For many health systems, COVID-19 has accelerated investment in AI or emphasized its value across the enterprise.
More than half of healthcare leaders expect artificial intelligence (AI) to drive innovation in their organization over the next year, and four out of five CFOs believe immediate digital transformation will be critical to their organizations’ survival following the pandemic.
It’s a sign that more and more healthcare leaders are turning to AI — including robotic process automation and machine learning — to drive enterprisewide impact. One recent survey shows 57% of healthcare CFOs plan to accelerate the adoption of automation and new ways of working due to the pandemic, compared with 44% of CFOs across industries.
“Before COVID-19, AI was seen more as a novelty with future potential,” says Scott Connor, vice president, financial planning and analysis, Piedmont Healthcare, which is just beginning its journey with AI. “It was more challenging to find defined uses for AI. During COVID-19, the focus has become, ‘How do you begin to predict the future in a very volatile world?’ The need to forecast what the next quarter or the next year is going to look like, both financially and non-financially, has changed how we view AI, especially tools that can help you better prepare for this uncertainty.”
“I certainly think COVID has raised awareness of the importance of AI — in particular, machine learning,” says Greg Nelson, associate vice president for analytics, Intermountain Healthcare, Salt Lake City, Utah. “It has coalesced much of our work around AI. We’re in the process of developing an AI Center of Excellence at Intermountain Healthcare to focus these efforts as an enterprisewide enabler for innovation.”
Most healthcare organizations are ramping up investments in automation in response to COVID-19, including the use of robotic process automation for highly manual, administrative functions. Others are taking a fresh look at AI’s enterprise value proposition.
Even before the pandemic, AI was quickly emerging as a valuable application for healthcare in four areas: administrative, clinical, financial and operational. A fall 2019 survey of healthcare leaders showed that 51% of healthcare providers had already implemented an AI strategy, compared with 22% in 2018. On top of that, half of healthcare industry leaders ranked “automating business processes” as their top priority.
Now, as hospitals seek ways to overcome significant declines in revenue during the pandemic:
- 84% of hospitals have audited their state of digital transformation. Top areas of focus: software solutions that capture revenue and anticipate industry shifts through innovative analytics and forecasting tools.
- 56% of healthcare CFOs believe technology investment will make their company better in the long run, a June 2020 survey shows.
How are hospitals evaluating AI investment decisions across the enterprise and what steps are they taking to achieve value quickly? Leaders from four health systems at varying stages of AI deployment share their insights.
Moving toward a comprehensive AI approach
At OSF HealthCare, staff have fielded more than 137,000 COVID-related digital encounters using tools that were launched days after the coronavirus outbreak emerged in the United States. Key to the health system’s agility: a systemwide strategy for digital innovation, including AI.
There’s Clare, an AI-fueled chatbot that screens individuals for the virus via the Peoria, Ill., system’s website and connects those with symptoms to a 24-hour COVID-19 nurse hotline. The health system initiated the AI chatbot in December 2019, but revamped it to become a COVID symptom tracker in just three days when the pandemic began. Its nurse hotline, “OSF Knows,” went live in just two days this past March, leveraging investments in advanced call center technology designed before the pandemic.
Meanwhile, an all-digital Pandemic Health Worker Program, launched in April 2020, put remote monitoring tools in the hands of those who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms or are at high risk for contracting the virus. Created in partnership with the state of Illinois, the program uses AI and telehealth to digitally support those who need care. It’s an approach that helps prevent unnecessary emergency department (ED) visits throughout the 14-hospital system, while ensuring that infected and vulnerable patients receive personalized care.
The response to these tools has been outstanding. From March through Sept. 6, 2020, more than 123,000 app-driven interactions have taken place through the chatbot, with over 42,500 chats related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Nearly 79,000 patients have received help through the COVID nurse hotline and another 2,750 patients have been served through the Pandemic Health Worker Program.
Three years ago, OSF Healthcare formed a multidisciplinary team to create a digital strategy road map for the system, with AI adoption being an area of focus. Among the projects that the health system sought to implement quickly, an AI chatbot rose to the top due to its potential for high impact.
“Had we not already had the foundation, the vendor relationships, the team and the structure in place to digitally respond to the pandemic, we would have never been able to go live with a COVID AI symptom tracker chatbot within a 72-hour window,” says Jennifer Junis, RN, MSN, senior vice president, OSF HealthCare Saint Gabriel Digital Health. “Had we not invested in our contact center technology, we wouldn’t have been able to come up with a COVID nurse hotline. Without some of the digital tools that we had invested in before the pandemic, we wouldn’t be able to respond digitally on such a large scale — and that would have had a negative impact on our facilities as well as our communities.”
The AI readiness of large health systems varies by organization. For Banner Health, which has explored AI for clinical and operational initiatives on a case-by-case basis, COVID-19 presented opportunities to further leverage existing AI solutions that were implemented prior to the pandemic, such as an online symptom checker, an ED chatbot that keeps patients informed throughout their visit and intelligent automation in revenue cycle. For example, use of robotic process automation (RPA) to ensure COVID-19 claims were not balance billed saved 1,500 man hours while ensuring compliance with federal and state regulations, including the CARES Act. Now, the health system is establishing an internal center of excellence for RPA, with two initiatives that are set to save more than 20,000 man hours through the end of 2020.
“I don’t think the pandemic has caused us to say, ‘Wow, we should use AI more deeply because of what we’ve learned during the pandemic,’” says Anthony Frank, senior vice president, finance, Banner Health. “However, we do have the ability to make decisions faster because of the pandemic, including around AI. If AI is the right solution to solve a problem, we might be more inclined to pull the trigger.”
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