Automation and artificial intelligence have become crucial tools in transforming healthcare. Today, innovative use of AI helps ensure clinicians have more time to dedicate to their patients.

Beth McCombs is executive vice president and chief technology officer at BD, a Fortune 500 medical and healthcare information technology company. 

BD offers AI technologies designed to streamline workflows and remove administrative burdens to allow doctors and nurses to focus on delivering personalized care.

We interviewed McCombs to discuss how AI-powered healthcare tools can ensure clinicians gain efficiencies and thus have more time to dedicate to their patients; how AI tools can help reduce the burnout problem; how AI can help with patient experience efforts; and what AI in healthcare will look like five years from now.

Q. How can AI-powered healthcare tools ensure clinicians gain efficiencies and thus have more time to dedicate to their patients?

A. Seemingly every healthcare professional I know chose the medical field to help patients, not to manage technology or perform administrative tasks. Yet, it’s difficult for healthcare providers to prioritize time at the bedside.

It has been shown that providers in hospital intensive care units may spend as little as 15% to 30% of their time with patients, dedicating the remainder to other tasks like reviewing and updating medical records. Fortunately, advances in technologies like AI are creating opportunities for clinicians to streamline administrative tasks to devote more time to patient care.

AI is a powerful tool to enable smart connected care. At its essence, smart connected care is collecting and integrating information about a patient – including vital signs, diagnostic results and health history – and using software to prioritize this information, streamline care delivery and provide actionable insights to aid healthcare providers in making patient care decisions.

Software and AI can even help automate a range of simple or repetitive tasks, such as delivering medications, monitoring infusion of medications, tracking fluid inputs and outputs, and managing patient temperature, and then record that information into patients’ electronic health records in real time.

Managing these repetitive activities with AI can free up more time for clinicians to engage with patients, while also driving consistent practices and promoting patient safety across the healthcare system. For example, in hospitals, drug diversion or misuse is a significant and costly problem that can jeopardize patient care if the right medications aren’t readily available when patients need them.

Many hospitals currently monitor diversion manually, which is resource- and time-intensive. Advanced analytics and machine learning are enabling software to identify anomalous behavior, automate controlled substance reconciliation, and immediately flag discrepancies that may require investigation. With software performing these tasks, hospitals can reallocate staffing resources and attention back to the bedside.

Additionally, smart connected software and medical technologies are already beginning to support the shift in care that has historically occurred in hospitals to new settings, including the home, so hospitals can efficiently prioritize staff and resources to patients who need them most.

These are just a few examples of how digital technologies can create efficiencies that enhance patient care and support cost-effective deployment of healthcare resources.

Q. Physician burnout is a huge issue in healthcare today. How can AI tools help reduce the burnout problem?

A. Burnout is impacting healthcare professionals across the care continuum. Med-tech companies have the responsibility and opportunity to better support healthcare providers overburdened by balancing the significant volume of tasks with delivering a high standard of care for patients.

The same AI-powered healthcare tools mentioned earlier to drive efficiencies will have the added impact of simplifying provider workflows and thereby helping to reduce burnout.

For example, today, in the busy ICU environment, dozens of devices and machines can produce hundreds of alerts per patient per day, consistently disrupting workflow and attention for healthcare providers required to manage and monitor these devices.

Med-tech companies can make device performance more robust for a wide range of clinical scenarios, develop adaptive technology that allows the device to self-correct, and/or use clinical decision support software to prioritize alerts and even offer personalized patient health insights to support safe, high-quality care.

We’re already working toward this reality, with AI-backed technology transforming how pharmacies, clinics and hospitals look, sound and function. Pharmacists, for example, typically spend as little as 10% of their working day counseling patients.

Automating many repetitive, time-consuming tasks is helping to ease strains in these short-staffed environments and minimizing risk for errors. Medication management platforms enlist robots to fill digital prescriptions, using computer vision to confirm the right medication and dose, and can even ship medicines directly to the patient’s home.

Connected care analytic platforms can inform stewardship pharmacists on timely appropriate antibiotic therapy by combining culture results with inadequate or redundant therapy, potentially decreasing antimicrobial overuse and resistance over time. These technologies are empowering pharmacists to shift away from counting pills and focus more of their time on providing higher-value clinical care with patients.

Q. Hospitals and health systems are trying to enhance the patient experience. How can these AI tools help with these efforts?

A. Any of us who has been a caregiver or dealt personally with a complex medical condition has witnessed how overwhelming and difficult the experience can be. While in a hospital, continuous noises and alerts can disrupt patient rest and recovery and the influx of information and instructions across provider handoffs create potential for confusion or errors.

When transitioning out of the acute setting, patients and caregivers assume significant care responsibilities, such as managing several prescription medications, monitoring vital signs or repetitively conveying the medical history to multiple clinicians. AI-backed solutions can help providers support patients along many points in their health journeys, from the hospital and even into the home.

Patients are already benefiting from early adoption of AI-driven technologies by health systems in areas like diagnostic testing and medication management. For example, healthcare providers rely on diagnostic testing in most clinical decisions.

The faster clinicians receive accurate results, the sooner they can use that data to help diagnose and treat patients. Lab automation systems designed to increase efficiency and minimize risk for errors are leveraging computer vision to evaluate specimens and prioritize those that require higher-value analysis by skilled laboratory staff.

Additionally, digital technologies are improving patient experience around medication safety and ensuring that vital medications are available when and where patients need them. These are just two examples of advancements happening throughout the care continuum.

As AI capabilities continue to improve, health systems will be able to provide a more seamless, coordinated and comprehensive experience for each patient. Integrating the different inputs across their care journey will help ensure that all information is readily available for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other stakeholders making care decisions for that patient.

AI-based remote monitoring systems will also enable health systems to provide high-quality care for patients outside their facilities, and support patients in understanding and following treatment plans from the comfort and convenience of their homes.

Q. What do you think AI in healthcare will look like five years from now?

A. The opportunities to improve healthcare with artificial intelligence and generative AI are truly incredible – from advancing the patient experience to reimagining how clinicians work and redefining our understanding of diseases and cures.

Cutting-edge technologies powered by breakthrough science and engineering are already helping researchers dramatically accelerate and push the boundaries of scientific discovery in areas like immunology, volume efficient cell sorting and genomics research. Research that would have taken weeks or months can now be done in days, accelerating the pace of development for new pharmaceuticals and biotech therapies to improve patient outcomes or even prevent disease.

Of course, AI requires large healthcare datasets to build accurate and robust systems. Therefore, as an industry, we must approach the field of AI in healthcare with the utmost consideration for security, privacy, compliance and safety.

We must continue to work across the industry to prioritize use cases that will have a greatest positive impact on clinical outcomes, healthcare costs, and patient and provider experience.

Looking ahead, I’m very excited about the potential for AI to promote health equity, disease prevention and personalized care.

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