Think about all the automation in the world. Then, think about how many manual processes still lie at the heart of provider operations. It’s a pretty revealing comparison, isn’t it? It shows how many healthcare organizations believe the transition to automation is too arduous a task to start.
However, moving from manual to automated provider processes doesn’t have to be an ordeal. In fact, it should be a relatively straightforward series of steps that results in far greater provider and staff satisfaction and enterprise efficiency.
Take provider scheduling as a prime example. Many administrators spend a lot of time toiling over cumbersome spreadsheets to try to create workable schedules. Once complete, these schedules are typically uploaded to an internal shared drive or printed for each physician, nurse, and other department staff member. The limited visibility afforded by these processes makes it difficult to accommodate all the inevitable provider swaps and change requests in real-time.
With the following five steps, though, health systems can enjoy the benefits of automation and put manual scheduling inefficiencies behind them:
Step 1: Identify key stakeholders
From the outset of any process transition, it’s imperative to identify the core set of project managers, administrators, and key opinion leaders who should be involved. Organizations should go through the conversion timeline and determine who needs to participate in milestone meetings and calls, which departments or locations should be represented, etc. In addition to schedule administrators, key stakeholders might include practice directors, operations supervisors, IT site managers, physician leaders, nurse leaders, and non-physician practitioner (NPP) leaders.
It’s important to recognize cultural nuances, too. Perhaps some practices operate slightly differently than others within a group, or the transition will impact different provider types. Health systems should account for such factors when identifying stakeholders.
Step 2: Determine existing process needs
Once the stakeholders are identified, organizations should look at the structure of the group being impacted and dive into its workflows. This entails reviewing existing day-to-day requirements with an eye toward future needs.
Let’s go back to the scheduling example: A health system should determine its current staffing model needs and assignments. On each day, what assignments must be staffed, and by whom? Must a specific number of physicians report to one unit at 7 a.m. every day? What about for holidays? What about NPPs, nurses, and other staff?
At a high level, this step is meant to grasp immediate requirements and form a framework to anticipate changes that might become necessary as the organization evolves and grows over time.
Step 3: Define rules, quotas, and other requisites
Step three is where schedulers must explain and document their cognitive effort and the rules they follow. For health systems, this step is usually the most challenging aspect of moving from manual activities to automation. It’s not technically difficult, but it requires formally defining knowledge that often resides in peoples’ heads. It also involves confirming and documenting the rules the organization follows to accomplish each task.
For instance, a scheduler might be asked to explain how they assign their call positions. What kinds of stipulations do they make? Do they ensure providers only have one weekend a month or one week during a quarter? Do they make sure providers aren’t put on back-to-back weekends? Are there call quotas for each doctor? This step would identify providers’ skill sets and credentials, as well as the guardrails to follow, helping to capture the parts of the scheduling process that should be automated.
Often, people don’t even realize how much knowledge resides in the backs of their minds. Yet this information is the foundation for automation. It enables organizations to build complete and equitable schedules based on configurable rules that leverage provider skill sets, preferences, and targets.
The documentation itself doesn’t have to be sophisticated—a simple text document will do—but the more information, the better. Documentation benefits the transition to automation and long-term knowledge transfer as different individuals enter or leave various roles.
Step 4: Review the application
Step four is when all the manual work and rules turn into an automated system. The scheduling database is created, tasks are coded, and apps are configured. While this step heavily depends on the health system’s IT staff and third-party technology partners, it also requires the involvement of the stakeholders identified in step 1.
Essentially, step four is an application preview.
Key stakeholders should have administrative access to the system and be trained to use it. They should be able to work through examples of the automated processes, ask questions of the implementation team, and provide feedback so that all desired adjustments are made before the new workflow is rolled out.
Step 5: Train all end users
The fifth and last step in the change to automation is to train everyone on the new system. Training should be appropriate for each person’s use—e.g., scheduling administrators should be trained differently than provider end-users.
Small steps, significant returns
Manual scheduling processes at one university health system used to consume the time of three to four administrators per department. In addition, chief surgeons often spent eight to 16 hours per month guaranteeing accurate schedules and sufficient coverage. After automating, the enterprise expects to reduce the time staff and physicians spend managing schedules by up to 80%—giving them extra time to spend on more productive tasks, including patient care.
At another health system, department FTEs previously spent eight to 16 hours each month on scheduling obligations. Automation has cut that time to four to six hours while simultaneously boosting provider satisfaction and morale due to the increased schedule transparency, fairness, and equitability, along with streamlined communication. The organization now has easy access to valuable data it never had before, enabling more effective and transparent real-time management.
Scheduling is just one example of the benefits possible when health systems move from manual to automated provider operations workflows. The transition is often easier than expected, with benefits quickly outweighing the effort. For health systems that wish to function and grow sustainably, automating provider operations is an excellent place to start.
Rich Miller serves as Chief Innovation Officer at QGenda. He is a career entrepreneur in healthcare and software with a passion for creating products and services that make a meaningful impact and create strategic value for customers. A recognized thought leader in healthcare, Rich specializes in executive management, workforce analytics, and healthcare strategy.