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November 10, 2023

Healthcare providers embrace automation, but strategy lags

In a new survey, hospitals and health systems say productivity is the key driver for automating the organization. Injecting a more strategic, enterprise-wide approach to their initiatives will lead to healthier returns.

Providers are hungry for automation and are deploying it across their organizations, according to the new Cognizant 2023 Healthcare Provider Automation Survey. More than 80% of hospital and health system executives said automation and its benefits are important to the success and even the survival of their organizations. The 300 C-suite, IT and operational leaders surveyed* expect that productivity gains from automation will help them tackle labor shortages, reduce burnout, improve patient care and take out costs along the way.

Yet the survey also showed signs that healthcare providers aren’t taking a strategic, enterprise approach to automation. That could lead to automation silos and disappointing results over the longer term.

We commissioned the survey to understand what’s driving automation among healthcare providers, where it’s taking hold and what obstacles are in its way. Here’s an overview of the survey’s revelations:

  • Improving productivity is the most powerful driver behind automation efforts (58%). Respondents also expect automation to improve patient satisfaction (35%) and think it will help their workforce succeed (46%). Providers have already implemented automation throughout their revenue cycle operations, in IT and in care management, areas for which it’s difficult to source and retain talent. They also point to these areas as continued priorities for automation.

Healthcare providers have a wide array of automation projects underway—but their hunger for automation may be outpacing strategy and governance.

C-suite, IT and business leaders all see themselves as the primary leaders of automation within their organizations. This signals a lack of governance across automation efforts. That could result in higher costs and lower ROI from duplicated efforts and failure to align with internal and core vendor technology roadmaps.

  • IT’s automation efforts appear extensive but aren’t recognized outside the department. Among IT leaders, 59% report automating aspects of infrastructure and IT support. Yet only 28% of C-suite executives and 14% of other business leaders say these functions have been automated. Where 30% of IT leaders say they have automated cloud migration activities, just 13% of C-suite and 15% of business leaders recognize this. Given that many IT organizations now routinely automate password resets, service desk inquiry routing, back-ups and more, IT executives may need to remind business peers of the value of this work. Simultaneously, provider IT organizations should ensure their automation efforts align with business priorities.

  • A shadow IT organization may be growing in some provider organizations. IT leaders report less automation under way in care management, the revenue cycle, patient access and patient financial services than business leaders in those areas do. This disparity suggests these business leaders may be investing in their own automation solutions. Centralized oversight could prevent automation silos that create continual integration and maintenance challenges, as opposed to streamlined workflows and increased productivity.

  • Respondents report their biggest barriers to deploying automation are fears about how patients will react and whether employees and clinicians will support the solutions. Yet most hospitals and health systems that have completed automation projects report that these projects met or exceeded their goals. That suggests employee and clinician resistance is less of an obstacle than imagined, and perhaps that providers are using good change management strategies.

  • Providers are rapidly recognizing the benefits of generative AI. Despite the relatively recent public availability of generative AI, 96% of respondents are using it for research and to simplify repetitive tasks. Care management and finance and accounting ranked high as areas that would benefit from generative AI.

A checklist for amplifying the value of automation

Here are some foundational no-regrets actions and investments that will benefit providers, especially the 53% who said they’ve made minimal progress on their automation journey:

  1. Create an automation center of excellence (CoE).
    The CoE provides governance, connects complementary projects, avoids wasteful redundancy, and ensures reusable bots, code and applications. It also identifies which solutions the provider needs most; defines clear goals, objectives and KPIs; and measures those as projects are implemented.

  2. Implement comprehensive automation governance.
    The CoE also can serve as the clearinghouse for data management and ethical AI policies, and for prioritizing automation investments that align with the enterprise vision. It should track automation applications in the hospital’s systems landscape to help catalog their dependencies. That vital information enables smooth system upgrades—or their unwinding and replacement.

  3. Identify low-hanging fruit for quick wins from initial automation efforts.
    Rote, repetitive, and rules-based operations are typically good candidates for robotic process automation (RPA). Layering in machine learning (ML) can extend the functionality of a simple solution. Note that desired functions may already be on your vendors’ roadmaps or going unused in existing software and tools.

  4. Budget for change management.
    Formal change management programs can help providers prevent and alleviate employee resistance to changes in procedures and workflow. When processes and procedures change, employees and clinicians worry about job security, which causes resistance. Mitigating these concerns requires a disciplined communication strategy.

  5. Develop a comprehensive omnichannel communications plan.
    Anticipate patient and public concerns long before an automation initiative goes live. Educating patients and the public about procedural changes and their benefits and encouraging feedback will lead to greater acceptance.

  6. Find trusted partners.
    A single health system is unlikely to have the necessary expertise to implement automation in every function or line of business. Partners with long-time healthcare experience plus expertise in RPA, ML and AI can help deliver expected returns.

With clear vision, objectives and governance, hospitals and health systems can deploy automation projects that deliver the improved productivity they expect. Proper planning can create intelligent, frictionless experiences that reduce employee and clinician burdens while improving patient satisfaction.

*We surveyed 120 C-suite executives; 80 IT executives, including CIOs; and 100 business leaders, including CNOs and CMOs.

To learn more, download the full report on our 2023 Provider Automation Survey or contact us to discuss how to develop automation strategies that quickly address pain points while building the foundation for continued deployment of automated solutions.

William Shea
VP, Healthcare Consulting
William Shea

William “Bill” Shea is a Vice President within Cognizant Consulting’s Healthcare Practice. He has over 20 years of experience in management consulting, practice development and project management in the health industry across the payer, purchaser and provider markets.

Sashi Padarthy

AVP & Consulting Partner, Digital Health

Author Image

Sashi Padarthy is an AVP within Cognizant Consulting’s Healthcare Practice, leading digital strategy and transformation services. He has helped healthcare organizations in the areas of strategy, transformation, innovation, new product development and value-based care.

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