As healthcare organizations rely more heavily on technology to support patients and clinicians, the automation of health IT infrastructure can become a valuable strategy for reducing waste and improving performance.
Automation can be applied to different IT infrastructure systems, such as network monitoring or data recovery, both of which are too data-intensive to function optimally without some technological assistance.
Reducing waste and generating actionable insights into infrastructure performance are two of the most significant benefits of automation. Automation offers visibility and control and frees up resources. This gives IT staff the opportunity to examine their IT infrastructure from a business perspective.
Automation supports innovation by taking basic tasks and giving them to a machine so staff can focus on how to continue to improve their IT infrastructure.
What is Automation?
Automation is a process performed without human assistance.
Automation is a pre-programmed set of rules that follows a command to complete the next steps of a task. The technology works on the premise of “If X, then Y.” When “X” happens, this indicates that “Y” is then allowed to happen.
There is no single automation solution that will cover an entire IT infrastructure, and automation itself is not a stand-alone tool. However, organizations can look into tools that leverage automation. Typically, these offerings will layer over existing infrastructure solutions or are built into infrastructure solutions to help reduce waste.
Applying automation to network security, network management, and data backup and recovery can give IT staff the opportunity to focus on growing the network instead of simply keeping the lights on.
A good place to start with IT infrastructure automation is network management, according to Veriflow CTO Dr. Brighten Godfrey.
Godfrey suggests that IT decision-makers consider automation techniques to support growing networks. IT infrastructure is moving away from individual device configurations and taking a more holistic approach to network management.
“The whole infrastructure within the enterprise is like a distributed piece of software in its level of complexity,” Godfrey explained. “That’s how you have to think about managing it. Automation gives you this assurance that you carry with you as you implement other solutions. You can verify the messy, complex reality that we’re dealing with today.”
Automation for network management gives staff better visibility and control over increasingly complex networks and allows organizations to develop a better understanding of what’s happening and why so that issues can be addressed quickly.
This concept can also be applied to network security. Automated security solutions will consolidate data so that employees can easily spot an error or inconsistency within a dashboard or other unified view. In the event that “if X, then Y” doesn’t happen, IT can clearly spot the problem so it can be remedied.
The networking industry is maturing, and organizations need to have visibility across their entire network to understand and predict its potential vulnerabilities. Adding automation allows IT staff to be more proactive with security threats because they don’t have to actively search out potential problems. Instead, vulnerabilities or questionable activity is presented to them without added effort..
Backup and data recovery solutions are also automation-friendly, especially because the process of backing up data often falls by the wayside. With automation, backups are performed without the need for manual intervention, allowing organizations to ensure that the most current data will be available in case of a disaster, ransomware attack, or other downtime event.
Staff will be able to automatically switch over to their recovery environment so the cyber attack can be managed appropriately. This leaves no downtime for users, so clinicians and patients can continue without interruption.
Automation and Artificial Intelligence
Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are starting to go hand in hand, especially when organizations are dealing with vast amounts of data and trying to make that data actionable. While automation can lead into machine learning, AI and automation are not the same thing.
Automation follows pre-programed rules that are manually configured by IT staff. When corrections or improvements need to be made to an automated configuration, any changes need to be completed by a member of staff. The changes do not happen automatically.
In contrast, AI is meant to simulate how a human thinks and learn. While AI features can be manually configured if a significant enough change needs to be made, AI is dynamic and can often improve upon itself by feeding previous results back into its self-learning algorithms to correct for past occurances.
Both processes are driven by data, but automation collates data and AI takes it a step further by understanding it. Based on the previously stated “If X, then Y” explanation for automation, AI expands to,”if X, then Y, and what about Z?”
Why is automation needed in healthcare?
The healthcare industry stands to benefit significantly from automation from a care perspective, as well as a business perspective.
Digital transformation is becoming mainstream in healthcare as provider organizations focus on offering more advanced services to improve the patient experience.
“Automation has advanced science and it has advanced the quality of healthcare. It’s well understood that automation is a critical part of delivering better healthcare,” Condusiv Technologies CEO Jim D’Arezzo told HITInfrastructure.com in a previous interview.
“The ability to have a historical health record, an electronic health record that can be shared across different environments, that's a big boon to patients as well as to hospitals. There are many facets to what automation can do.”
Automation is needed to keep track of overlapping systems to make sure they work together reliably, and to ensure that all tools are being utilized to their capacity. This reduces waste in the form of time and resources, which equals saved capital.
The case for automation can be broken down into two perspectives: The convenience and innovation perspective of the IT staff who work directly with the infrastructure tools everyday, and the business perspective of executives who are looking to cut back on costs and save time and money.
Evolving infrastructure technology means that the network needs to constantly be improved upon, said Extreme Networks Senior Director of Product Management Mike Leibovitz.
“Human beings can operate large complex networks, but it requires manpower or womanpower in real-time and that’s cost to a business,” explained Leibovitz.
“The reality of healthcare is you don't want to leave your network to chance,” he continued. “You really do need people, and that's why healthcare organizations typically have a larger IT staff than many other organizations. To debug and do all of these maintenance tasks, it's time-intensive and it's human-intensive. This is where machines can be employed to do the job that you probably don't want your staff working on.”
Automating patient reminder calls and eliminating steps in appointment setting or registration processes can create a positive ROI for organizations and allow for faster communication.
Labor costs also go down due to automation because separate tasks can be done simultaneously.
Organizations will also see improved quality because of a reduction in human error. Simple or common mistakes that people make because of distraction or fatigue are no longer an issue with automation. Supporting staff with automation also helps clinicians work faster so they can treat more patients in the same period of time.
The data produced by automation can also significantly help a provider organization from a business perspective. Automation is constantly sending feedback and data about processes that can be used to to assess IT solution performance. Entities can then use this feedback to optimize systems or allocate additional resources where necessary.
These insights provide a bird’s eye view of the IT infrastructure, allowing technical teams to take a step back and focus on improvements. Taking the stress out of simply trying to keep a network afloat by using automation gives organizations the opportunity to plan for future advancements that will continue to improve patient care.
Organizations have several options to introduce automation into their IT infrastructure. Entities can build automation programs in-house or purchase tools that have automation built into them. Choosing a method depends on the resources available to each individual institution.
Some larger health systems are capable of creating their own automation programs because they have the developers on hand, or have the capital to outsource the project. Smaller healthcare systems might not have the staff on hand, so consulting with vendors and looking for solutions with automation capabilities is a better option.
Integrating automation into IT infrastructure plans can help organizations make decisions when they are looking to replace legacy systems. Asking IT staff what tasks should be automated can push executives into adding or replacing certain systems first, such as network management. The data collected by an automated network management solution can then advise decisions by giving insight into what systems need to be replaced to improve the infrastructure.
As IT infrastructure continues to evolve and become more complex, automation becomes a necessary tool to relieve IT staff of burdensome tasks that can be done faster and more precisely by machines. This gives IT staff more time to focus on more important tasks so the network can grow to include more advanced digital tools to improve clinician and patient experience.
This article was originally published on June 29, 2018.