The wave of embracing technological solutions in health systems

Within the past few years, health systems have faced two ongoing issues: labor shortages and financial constraints. Dr. Nigrin sees these challenges as opportunities for innovation. 

Daniel Nigrin, MD, chief information officer for MaineHealth, joined the Becker's Healthcare Podcast to talk about the labor crisis and why engaging with current technology is important.

Note: responses are lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What are some of the big opportunities you're looking at, as well as the headwinds you have your eye on?

Dr. Daniel Nigrin: The headwinds are ones that, unfortunately, are very similar. As you look across almost every health system around the country, we're facing incredible difficulties in terms of finances these days. The pandemic did not help in terms of the labor situation. We've got labor shortages, and those, in turn, have led to enormous salary increases. Those things, coupled with the labor shortages and the resulting financial situation, are forcing organizations to be pushed into situations they've not been in for quite some time, if ever. That's resulted in all kinds of constraints around our ability to hire folks. 

This is all in the face of an environment where the pace of change continues to increase enormously. So especially within it, we're being asked to do more and more and to solve for so much more and yet to do so with a pretty constrained set of resources to do all of those things. In terms of the opportunities, I'll actually cite all of those things as potential opportunities for us. Again, especially within it, it can address many of those things, for example, labor shortages. Organizations have used technology to make their clinical teams more effective in all kinds of creative ways. 

So it can help in that regard. We've always done things in medicine in a certain way in healthcare, but that's not always the best way, especially these days when technology can help with re-imagining workflows and doing things differently. 

Q: What does that look like when you consider those challenges, coupled with the technologies that can help bridge the gaps? Can you provide one or two examples of how you can support the overall health system, including adding growth and value to the clinician or the patient experience?

DN: The obvious one we also have with the pandemic is virtual care's presence and development. This was the technology we already had, but it exploded with the start of the pandemic and has continued. What's interesting is to see that this is no longer considered esoteric. Many organizations are using this creatively to solve some of the challenges I mentioned before. We're starting to hear much more about virtual nursing scenarios, remote ICU care and monitoring. Care at home has taken a strong foothold, which was not new, but the pandemic helped spotlight it and make organizations realize that they were viable adjuncts to how we had been delivering care until now.

With the financial pressures, organizations realize that these have to be how we care for our patients, simply from a fiscal perspective. That's one great example of technology that is incredibly valuable to our organization and, I'm sure, to many others around the country. There's other automation like robotic process automation and how that's one approach to automating some of the more administrative tasks that we often find our care team members having to manage, especially in some administrative areas. But also, within clinical care, we can envision using some automation to allow our team to do more with less with the assistance of technology. With all of the range that the last few months have brought around, large language models and ChatGPT and things like that, those are going to figure more prominently within our system as the technology matures.

Q: When you look at some of those opportunities, whether it's artificial intelligence or automation, and bringing that into the healthcare organization, what are those conversations like with the executive team, departments, clinicians, or the workers on the ground? How do they feel about all of this?

DN: There is an absolute excitement level and almost an expectation that we start doing this now. I'm not sure whether that's because it's been so prominent in the media, but obviously, folks can go out and try some of these things on their own now, and in many instances, it's a pretty jaw-dropping experience when you try it. That has helped many people come to grips with the fact that this new technology is here and we have a start to capitalize on it. We're an organization that wants to adopt and is planning to adopt a lot of this tech.

Now we have to do so in a responsible way. We must do more than throw ChatGPT everywhere and think it will solve all of our problems. The path to success with some of these new tools will not be a straight line but one that's pretty crooked and takes twists and turns. We need to go in with eyes open, but at the same time, I'm also convinced that these technologies will be absolutely critical within the provision of care moving forward. There is a lot of opportunity for some of these systems to start to play a role and I'm very excited by it.

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