A Q&A with our Director of User Experience on current challenges and emerging technologies in the healthcare industry
There can be no doubt that healthcare has made some amazing strides compared to previous decades when it comes to medical treatment. But when it comes to the administrative and regulatory aspects of the industry, there are many challenges still to be addressed.
Healthcare technology is sometimes seen as part of the problem, but the truth is that when done right, it can help solve problems for both doctors and patients. The healthcare IT industry is growing rapidly, with many potential innovations around the corner that could dramatically improve the way medical practices operate.
To gain more insights on the emerging technologies in the healthcare industry, we sat down with our Director of User Experience, Andrew Schall, to get his thoughts.
Q: How has healthcare information technology evolved?
Andrew Schall: We’ve come a long way since the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act was passed in 2009. The electronic health records (EHR) system industry was still in its infancy back then, but HITECH laid the framework for the widespread adoption of EHRs as part of then-president Obama’s American Reinvestment & Recovery Act (ARRA).
The Meaningful Use program began incentivizing providers for their use of EHRs in 2011, motivating more and more doctors to switch from paper and more entrepreneurs to start EHR companies. However, at that point, many vendors were focusing more on creating software for Meaningful Use than on creating software providers could actually use efficiently.
After switching to an EHR system, many healthcare professionals found that their systems were slowing them down instead of helping them work faster. Plus, most of the systems at that point in time were desktop- and server-based, which came with a variety of drawbacks, including higher hardware costs and limited mobility.
As the industry has evolved, more usable EHRs have appeared on the market thanks to strategies like specialty-first design, user-centered design methodologies, and having doctors help program EHR software themselves.
There’s still an inevitable focus on government incentive programs, but the emphasis now is more on saving time and reducing the reporting burden. More physicians have also been able to adopt cloud and touch-based technologies, and some health information systems today even offer intelligence amplification to assist physicians in the exam room.
Q: What are some challenges that need to be overcome in the healthcare industry?
AS: Currently, some of the biggest challenges involve streamlining office workflow, training doctors on how to achieve optimal use of their healthcare technology, and increasing patient satisfaction and engagement. Within these broader trends, there are many different facets of those key issues that EHR companies are looking at trying to fix.
Spending Too Much Time With the EHR
If you ask a doctor or medical assistant what their biggest problem is right now, there’s a good chance they’ll talk about the amount of time they spend typing and clicking.
Some studies have even shown that some systems take dozens of clicks just to complete a simple task, and the average doctor now spends more time with their EHR than their patients. We’re seeing this reflected in the increasing levels of physician burnout.
As I mentioned earlier, user- and specialty-focused design can help doctors do more with fewer clicks. Quality training and workflow analysis have also been found to have a huge impact. As part of the future of healthcare technology, EHR companies are looking into voice assistance and intelligence augmentation to aid in this area.
Poor Interoperability Between Systems
Exchanging information between healthcare organizations is another immense challenge. When providers and patients are unable to share records and documents effectively, it can require a lot of extra work from administrative staff and patients to try to get the information they need.
This can sometimes delay necessary medical treatment or require expensive diagnostic tests to be repeated because the results could not be found. Ultimately, providers need to be able to understand their patients’ entire stories to be able to deliver the most effective care.
However, the existing interoperability standards have made it difficult for health information systems to talk to each other in a meaningful way.
Patients Missing Appointments
Missed appointments are actually a huge problem in the industry. For every appointment slot left open, the practice loses potential revenue. This costs the US healthcare system more than $150 billion per year. Plus, if patients don’t come in, they may not be getting the care they need.
So why aren’t they showing up? Sometimes they just forget, which is why appointment reminders can be so valuable. But another big reason is that many patients—especially older people who are unable to drive—have trouble getting transportation. In fact, estimates show that about 3.6 million Americans do not obtain medical care because of a lack of transportation in a given year.
Unless you can walk to the office, not having a ride (car, bike or otherwise) means you simply can’t go to the appointment. Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft have made it easier for many people to obtain transportation, but these services are not as accessible for people who don’t have smartphones.
Q: How can healthcare information technology help fix these problems?
AS: I believe some major advances are on the horizon, as companies today are already looking into innovative ways to address the issues I discussed.
EHR Voice Assistants
To help doctors spend less time with their EHRs and more time with patients, one potential solution is voice control technology. The idea is, if a provider can give voice commands like you would to Alexa or Siri, as well as using their voice to document the visit, they don’t have to manually interact with a device as much. This frees them up to spend more time with patients.
The voice-activated “virtual scribing” concept is different from traditional dictation because the software would be able to capture structured data and execute different tasks, instead of just capturing what’s being said as free text.
The EHR could also look up certain information in the patient’s record or the medical content library and read it back, so the provider or their scribe doesn’t have to look it up themselves. For medical assistants, who often find themselves working as scribes today, this technology could help them get back to actually being an MA.
We’re quite a ways off from full conversations like Dave has with HAL 9000 in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but basic voice commands can go a long way towards simplifying EHR interaction.
FHIR Interoperability Standards
The biggest reason why interoperability in healthcare has been a challenge was not having the right data sharing standards. We’ve had standards for decades, but they can be complicated and time-consuming to use.
Recently, Health Level Seven International (HL7®) released Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR), a new standard for exchanging healthcare information electronically. This emerging technology in the healthcare industry is a huge advance with the potential to transform the state of interoperability.
With FHIR, the goal was “to simplify implementation without sacrificing information integrity” through “a consistent, easy to implement, and rigorous mechanism for exchanging data between healthcare applications.” Unlike the existing standards it builds upon, FHIR uses web-based application programming interface (API) technology, making it faster and easier to set up interfaces.
More standards may need to be defined before FHIR can be fully utilized, but it seems to be the platform that everyone is moving towards. The government and healthcare information technology companies are both investing heavily in these standards, believing that they will be the solution for interoperability in the future of healthcare technology.
Ridesharing for Medical Appointments
As part of the future of healthcare technology, EHR companies are considering offering interfaces with ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft to help patients get the transportation they need to attend their appointments. This would allow a ride to automatically be scheduled for the patient when they book an appointment.
This is definitely an unusual combination of technologies. Why put the two systems together when practices could just encourage patients to take advantage of ridesharing services? The answer is that the real value here is convenience—the technology works behind the scenes, providing the patient with a seamless experience in getting to their appointment.
This is very different from how Uber and Lyft are usually used, after all. Patients who have difficulty getting transportation may not know how to use ridesharing services, or they may have limited access to them because they don’t own a smartphone. Requiring patients to book their own ride would be more complicated for them, but it’s easy if they can opt to get it automatically when they book.
This technology could benefit practices immensely by helping decrease no-show rates, which can sometimes have a big impact on providers’ bottom lines—not to mention patients’ health.
Granted, there are other solutions out there that could help address this issue as well, such as self-driving vehicles for people who aren’t able to drive themselves. However, that type of technology is probably even farther away, and it’s not something EHR companies can really take on themselves. That’s why I think ridesharing interfaces are a promising option.
Q: Do you have any final thoughts to share?
AS: As we’ve discussed, there are a lot of exciting emerging technologies in the healthcare industry, from voice-activated EHRs to automated ridesharing interfaces. These innovations have the potential to solve important challenges for doctors and patients alike.
It’s impossible to make concrete future technology predictions, but ultimately, it matters less how we solve these problems than that we solve them. If we change course a little because a newer, better technology comes along that can address these healthcare challenges, I think we’d all welcome that.
Looking at the industry as a whole, I see the future of healthcare technology as an all-in-one ecosystem of cutting-edge solutions that seamlessly integrate within the medical practice and the patient’s journey. Instead of a fragmented healthcare industry full of siloed systems, this ecosystem will communicate with other similar solutions to provide distributed, coordinated care.