Hospitals worldwide increasingly have to do more with less, says Jacques van Wyk, COO of Ricoh SA. Technologies that replace repetitive, transactional tasks will have a huge role to play in the hospital of the future, particularly as many become increasingly commoditised and cost-effective.
Digital care records, results and appointment services and remote health management are just some of the areas that stand to gain greater efficiency through automation.

A key benefit of this shift is in the patient care value that can be optimised through freeing up healthcare workers from routine or purely operational tasks. A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit on The Future of Work, sponsored by Ricoh, found that automation of repetitive tasks is going to shift the emphasis of human employment towards creativity and social skills.

However, one potential downside is that the move to wider automation will also cause increasing uncertainty over job security. With budget cuts still rife, many providers have already seen over-pressurised permanent hospital employees leave their jobs, only to be replaced with a rapid rise in temporary workers. This rise has been accompanied by a shift in emphasis from practitioners with a specialist focus to generalists who can fill any or multiple roles. This can significantly impact the dynamic within hospital teams, as well as their ability to deliver effective care.

One way to balance concerns that automation might mean redundancy – which it rarely does in practice – is to make automation just one part of a smart hospital approach that’s focused on using technology to help employees cope with and adapt to the modern complexity of patient care. Rather than replacing employees, this means freeing up care workers for more strategic and proactive work – for example; promotion of infection control, better co-ordination of different care providers and more intelligent communication with family members.

Much of the solution lies in recognising workers’ creativity, problem solving skills and innovation, rather than simply their ability to manage and follow processes. Ultimately, there needs to be a much greater focus on looking after workers’ wellbeing. This needs to be supported by flexible working policies and technologies that help them to get the job done. Cross industry collaboration, whereby healthcare providers work alongside technology companies to design products that support their processes, is one way to incorporate theoretical innovation with practical reality.

In most countries the medical community is also tasked with improving its ability to influence the political systems that surround it. Strong and capable leadership will have a huge part to play in engaging with stakeholders and influencers at the appropriate level. As such, attracting and developing management skills will also be vital to ensuring better overall clinical outcomes.

Whether we will see the arrival of smart hospitals or collaborative healthcare innovation any time soon is a matter for debate. What is clear is that automation in healthcare is going to grow over the next few years. This change must be managed carefully, especially in terms of its human impact.