Conversational AI helps ease impact of nursing shortage - MedCity News

Healthcare leaders need no reminding that they are facing a severe nursing shortage. It’s a challenge they’ve faced for years — and it’s become a critical concern as record numbers leave their practices due to burnout and burnout.

November 2021 Hospital IQ Study found that as many as 90% of nurse respondents were considering leaving to pursue a new career. Another troubling result: 71 percent of nurses with 15 or more years of experience — an invaluable resource for health systems — said they were on the verge of leaving.

The stakes for relieving stress on nurses have never been higher. If leaders can’t find innovative solutions, patient care and outcomes will suffer, which in turn affects satisfaction, loyalty and revenue. Operational efficiency will decrease, escalating costs and increasing errors introduced by broken workflows will persist.

Automation diverts non-clinical tasks from overworked nurses

As in other areas of healthcare, innovative leaders are exploring technologies that can help them offset the existing and growing nursing shortage. While digital tools can never fully replace the personal touch of a trained and caring nurse, they divert non-clinical tasks to appropriate resources. This allows nurses to focus on the activities that drew them to the profession in the first place – providing superior clinical care, connecting with patients and their families, and directly impacting outcomes and well-being.

One example of an impactful digital-first strategy is the growing use of voice assistants such as the Amazon Echo during hospital stays. Patients – as consumers themselves – are familiar with the concept of using smart speakers to receive information and send requests. Smart devices powered by advanced healthcare-specific conversational artificial intelligence (AI) can serve as a real-time support system for patients.

Patients can use the digital night assistant to register a wide range of queries, from requesting their food tray to be removed to complaining of increasing pain. AI technology can direct the request to the best resources, diverting non-clinical needs (e.g. removing a food tray) to the appropriate department (e.g. logistics support), while prioritizing clinical issues (pain) for nursing staff. Instead of personally responding every time a patient presses the call button, nurses can instead focus solely on tasks related to clinical patient care.

One organization is trialling a smart speaker system in its spinal trauma unit. Over four weeks, patients interacted with the automated assistant more than 5,000 times. Sixty-three percent of unit nurses found the pilot improved their ability to deliver and prioritize patient care – and 73% recommended other units and systems adopt the technology. Likewise, 92% of patients supported the use of smart speakers across the organization.

Interesting side note: In addition to healthcare-specific concerns, patients have also used the smart speaker for entertainment purposes, such as listening to music or checking the weather. The health system had not anticipated this, but management realized that the use of a bedside aide provided added value and made an inpatient stay a more “homey” experience.

Virtual assistants triage patients in need of a nurse

Digital tools and automated workflows have become a critical component of patient communication and outreach, helping nurses focus their efforts where their skills and expertise can provide the most value. Many post-discharge programs, for example, task nurses with contacting patients within a day or two of leaving the hospital. Intelligent virtual assistants can streamline this process—assessing patients’ conditions and directing only those who need intervention to live interaction with a nurse.

A mid-Atlantic health system implemented an automated post-discharge outreach program, cascading communications via email, SMS and voice to reach patients and check on their well-being. A virtual assistant asked four questions, asking patients if they 1) were feeling well, 2) filled their prescriptions, 3) scheduled a follow-up appointment, and 4) understood their care plan. Those who answered no to any of the questions were escalated to a nurse upon discharge, which greatly reduced the number of phone calls these nurses had to make.

During the pilot, 86% of patients interacted with the virtual assistant and answered the questions asked. Two-thirds of these patients followed their care plan and reported no problems – meaning the nurse only had to call those who needed personal interaction, saving countless hours and focusing care on those in immediate need .

The first digital direct care models gained traction during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is now seen as a viable solution to help health systems deal with nursing shortages and demands in other departments, such as call centers. Similar to industries such as finance, hospitality and retail that have embraced automation and technology to handle routine tasks, healthcare can use digital solutions to improve operational efficiency without sacrificing quality of care – and in turn lighten the burden on overworked staff, reduce costs, and capture revenue that may have been missed due to broken workflows.

Photo: gabort71, Getty Images

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