By John Harrison
When we dream about the promise of artificial intelligence (AI) and technologies like machine learning (ML) in healthcare, we often imagine futuristic medical feats—using AI to predict cancers, guide robotic surgeries, and so forth. But the immediate promise of AI in transforming patient care is in the considerably less sexy arena of patient data exchange. By applying AI to a technology we associate with the past—fax— we can streamline the exchange of patient data between health systems and liberate physicians from the relentless administrative tasks that derail them from performing the critical work they do best: caring for patients.
This week happens to be National U.S. Health IT Week and as the country celebrates the power of information technology to reform our health system, all eyes are on the hot topic issue of interoperability—the ability of health systems to connect and exchange data in a coordinated manner so that a patient’s digital chart can follow a patient between healthcare settings. The lack of interoperability of data between systems, including providers, pharmacies, labs, and insurance, is an ongoing impediment that limits the ability of providers to readily exchange clinical notes and other patient information that could lead to better decision-making. The time it demands now of clinical staff to collect, enter, and validate data—time intended for patient encounters—is driving up physician burnout, escalating costs, and leading to critical information being missed.
We can do better, starting right now. Fax (particularly a fax machine), is often seen as a road block to the secure and efficient exchange of patient data. But newer fax technologies working in concert with AI may actually be a stepping-stone towards revolutionizing how patient information is processed in healthcare settings.
Most people are surprised to learn that approximately 75 percent of data transmitted between healthcare systems is carried out by fax. The lowest common denominator of communication technologies, fax is the preferred mode of communication for billions of healthcare-related information exchanges each year. Why? Compared to data exchange technologies currently available, Fax is simple, inexpensive, and widely available to small and large health systems alike. Computer based Fax has been proven to be secure and far more reliable than email and it is deeply entrenched in healthcare workflows. Fax is here to stay.
But conventional fax machines can be clunky and unsecure. Currently, health information received by fax machine must be printed, reviewed by humans, sorted by type, coded for urgency, routed, and entered manually as data into the patient’s electronic health record (EHR) all of it eating up valuable time and introducing the risk of omissions and errors. If a physician has only 12 minutes with a patient, all the information they need to make critical decisions must be available and organized at the point of care. The inefficiencies of handling paper faxes can get in the way of that.
But fax persists, to a significant degree because the fax industry has adapted to accommodate new technologies. Computer-based faxing (fax servers) and cloud faxing make it possible for healthcare systems to send or receive digital faxes without ever having to print or scan paper copies, or even leave the electronic health record (EHR) system. With secure cloud-based fax services, the entire fax process is handled digitally via the web, without fax machines, phone lines, or on-premises fax server software. Cloud-based fax services allow providers to communicate digitally, keeping the familiarity of fax while purging antiquated software.
Now, with the introduction of AI, fax technology is changing again. By applying AI to solve the challenges related to fax transmission, we can drive down the administrative inefficiencies that mire physicians in red tape, and, in doing so, plug a gap in our health system that helps solve the interoperability problem.
Cloud fax services, when extended by AI, give us the ability to read and understand the contents of a digital fax image like a human would. They can recognize the category of a fax document and automatically route that document to the appropriate staff for processing. AI-enabled cloud fax systems can also intelligently extract patient demographic data and associate a document with a patient’s medical record so that when a physician sees a patient and opens the chart, all the data they need is easily accessible. When done this way, AI applied to fax can automate other simple tasks related to routing documents and identifying urgent pieces of content from the piles and piles of documentation that plague health systems.
The healthcare industry is still years away from a universal standard for healthcare information exchange. Until then, the EHR landscape will remain a mosaic of different vendors and the challenge of interoperability will remain. Cloud-fax and AI are an affordable and accessible alternative to waiting around for a perfect interoperability solution. The future of AI in healthcare is right now, making strides in life saving technologies and now also making short work of practical problems that prevent physicians from doing this lifesaving work.
So much time is wasted and so much information is being processed inefficiently in healthcare. With AI and faxing, we can drastically reduce the amount of time physicians across the country waste ticking boxes and offer them instead what they need most: seamless access to complete and holistic patient health data that can be used to deliver better care.
John Harrison is the SVP of Concord Technologies, a leading cloud fax and document automation company that is based in Seattle and is responsible for the delivery of more than a billion healthcare documents each year.