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The situation is all too familiar in long-term care. There are not enough qualified staff to provide acceptable levels of care for residents and patients. The jobs are demanding, both physically and mentally. The schedule is frequently not family friendly. Companies in other industries are paying more money for less stressful jobs, actively poaching your best talent.

We’ve already talked about the options available for attracting and retaining good employees, but wouldn’t the job be easier if we didn’t need to hire quite so many people? This is one of the promises of automation, along with increased productivity and lower costs.

What is Automation?

OK, seems like a simple question, but automation is a major topic in global business and especially in healthcare. The concept is to leverage technology to perform certain functions that have been handled by people, leaving people to do work that can’t be easily replaced by machines.

Automation has been around for a long time. Consider the assembly line, where the product comes to the worker rather than making the worker travel to the product. Considered a major innovation when it was introduced in the automotive industry, it’s now widely implemented everywhere.

Today’s automation goes beyond the mechanical movement of physical objects. Consider Zapier, software that allows a user to string together several other applications to perform complicated tasks, freeing the user to spend time creating more value doing other work. Less stunning examples include automatic bill pay and subscription ordering through Amazon.

Automation in Healthcare

The American healthcare system devotes 25% of the annual $4 trillion in spending to administrative costs. That’s nearly $1 trillion on activities that have no direct association with treating patients. Imagine how far automating data gathering and interpretation would go toward reducing that number.

Historical barriers to automation focused on the limitations of technology in analyzing complex data. Computers tend to be very good at a few things: remembering, counting, and repeating simple tasks. They were not very good at recognizing patterns or making informed decisions based on data. Only relatively recently has artificial intelligence begun to show value in the real world.

Artificial intelligence is defined by dictionary.com as: “the branch of computer science involved with the design of computers or other programmed mechanical devices having the capacity to imitate human intelligence and thought.” It is becoming increasingly common for relatively complicated processes and procedures to be automated with artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Automation in Long-Term Care

Most larger LTC pharmacies use robots (automation devices) to perform repetitive tasks such as pick-and-pack operations, sorting finished orders into bins, and tracking orders from pharmacy to final destination. Other common examples of pharmacy system automation are alerts sent when refills are due and management of inventory to reorder medications when supply gets low.

In the nursing home, professionals rely on mobility devices to take the backaches out of moving residents from bed to wheelchair or commode. These devices are efficient enough to be able to replace at least one person in the process of movement. Patient monitoring is automated so nursing staff can be engaged in other tasks and alerted when vital signs are outside of normal limits, or if a resident has fallen.

While not squarely in the realm of automation, predictive analytics has the potential to streamline the process of obtaining a diagnosis and predicting which treatments are most likely to be successful.

Back to the issue at hand. All the players in long-term care need to focus on getting up to adequate staffing levels. That can happen in two ways: we either double down on our efforts to recruit and retain, or we look for ways to use fewer people. One of the ways to accomplish this is to keep our eyes open to opportunities to incorporate automation.

X Factors for Automation in Long-Term Care Pharmacy

  • Review your processes and catalog those that involve repetition or physical strength.
  • Look at technology options to automate processes or aid these tasks with fewer people.
  • Do the assessment to determine solutions that offer the best chance to recapture the needed investments and to maintain high-quality outcomes.

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Written by: Paul Baldwin, Baldwin Health Policy Group
Paul’s pharmaceutical industry experience in public and government affairs led to becoming Executive Director of the Long Term Care Pharmacy Alliance, helping lead the industry through the Medicare Modernization Act and creation of the prescription drug benefit. Paul was VP of Public Affairs for Omnicare before founding Baldwin Health Policy Group.

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