Plenty of health care processes are ripe for automation

by Joe Flower

From H&HN Most Wired, November 10, 2006

When I buy an airline ticket online, I specify a seat and check the
box for a vegetarian meal. At the airport, I use a credit card or
anything with an identifying magnetic strip at one of the airline’s
kiosks. The machine identifies the owner of the card as the owner of a
specific ticket, all because it is networked with the airline’s main

system now “knows” that I have checked in and prints the boarding pass.
When I get to the gate, I stick the boarding pass into another machine.
If my identity, itinerary and seat assignment all line up, it spits out
the ticket stub and I go on board. If not, it beeps to notify the human
crew member who is watching.

During my entire trip, I only talk to human agents for security purposes or to say, “I’ll have some coffee, thank you.”
Every aspect of getting me from point A to point B has been handled by networked, intelligent machines.

kind of networked, intelligent automation is appearing here and there
in health care. With robotic pharmaceutical distribution systems, for
example, a robot picks unit dose drugs off of racks, seals them in
bar-coded or RFID-encoded packages and routes them to the correct
floor. There, another robot distributes the drugs to pharmaceutical
kiosks that ensure that the dose, patient and proper time match the
order before the drawer unlocks to allow drug administration.

as they are for patient safety, accountability, proper billing,
inventory control and many other aspects, such systems are still
limited to particular aspects of health care.

imagine the wired future of health care, we have to imagine such
systems throughout health care. Every provider organization is a sea of
transactions, cross-linked handoffs of information and physical
materials, all connected to different kinds of ownership, permissions,
restrictions and access requirements.

Now think your
way through that sea of transactions and ask yourself, “Could this
transaction possibly be handled by a machine? Could the instructions
for it be reduced to an algorithm or decision tree? Could the inputs
come directly from some other computer or machine?”

Any process for which you answer “yes” could be computerized, automated and networked and probably eventually should be
as part of our continuing quest to clean up the daunting, bottomless inefficiency of health care.

outside of health care react negatively to the notion of automated
care, imagining that it would remove the human touch from the very
moments when we most need it. But the true human touch, with
compassion, careful judgment and real connection, is already in short
supply. In fact, automation can free up caregivers for those most human
tasks. And if a process being done to me as a patient truly is
mechanical, such as ensuring the accuracy of a dosage, I would rather
it be performed by intelligent machines. Credit card transactions have
a far higher accuracy rate than health care transactions. For the truly
mechanistic processes, treat me like a credit card.