Automation holds incredible power to streamline our work and personal lives and is a significant contributor to the progress being experienced in healthcare. Automation has a huge impact on lowering cost, but too often “automated” processes require far too many manual touches.

It’s hard to think of another industry where data plays such a dynamic role, with millions of transactions occurring daily between healthcare providers and suppliers. Automation has helped to speed those orders and payment transactions, but too often, price discrepancies, bad data or other data errors require manual intervention that disrupts the entire process, creates more opportunity for error, and raises overall costs. It’s the cascading effect of humans.

What’s needed is a heightened priority for validating the accuracy of data before sending it through to the next function in the order-to-pay process. The best way to get speed into the process is accuracy. Errors will always stop automation cold.

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The “errors are just part of the system and we can fix them by hand” mindset is unsustainable. This is particularly true when providers and suppliers are looking to strip waste and inefficiency out of processes to help improve margins. It’s essential that healthcare put a new premium on clean data and price accuracy throughout the industry, so we can rely on the power of automation to make our processes faster and error-proof.

Here are a couple of examples. Let’s assume it’s 2 p.m. and a hospital has just learned it needs a critical order by the next day. Someone on the staff enters a few items on a purchase order, sends the PO electronically to the supplier, and soon heads home for the day. The next day, the staff comes in, expecting to find the order filled and on site, but it’s not there.

Turns out the supplier had a 3 p.m. cutoff time for shipping orders. They tried to reach out, but the purchase order failed to include the customer name and included wrong part numbers. Even though the PO went out electronically, the process ground to a halt because the data was incorrect. Not only does this require costly manual intervention to fix, but also it affects the hospital’s ability to provide patient care.

Another example of the need for further automation in the supply chain is on the clinical side. Most healthcare providers today require clinicians in procedural areas to document supplies and implants at the point of use directly into the electronic health record. However, the clinical environment often requires a broader universe of products than is available in the item master. Every item a clinician can’t find must be entered manually as a one-time supply, disrupting clinical workflow and efficiency. This inefficiency adds costs and diminishes the value of the data in the EHR when the data quality is in question.

The good news is that today, automation is playing a new role in providing item data directly to an EHR by using a healthcare provider’s item master and other data sources to reduce one-time supplies and associated charge reconciliation. The result is more accurate supply documentation, increased efficiency in the operating room, fewer missed charges, less clinician frustration, improved tracking of supplies, and total case costing insights.

These are just a couple of examples of the role automation can play in healthcare. But for automation to be a game-changer in our business, providers and suppliers need to first collaborate around critical issues including cleaning up data, understanding what “orderable” information is, and tackling the issue of price discrepancies.

Achieving the “perfect order” has been the Holy Grail of the order-to-payment cycle. This requires a purchase order to move through the order-to-payment process in a completely automated way, without human intervention, and ensure the product ordered is delivered to the correct location, on time, undamaged, at the correct price and desired quantity, all on the first attempt. It’s an essential goal, given the high cost of errant orders—costs generally associated with a lack of automation.

A few areas of focus to help ensure that automation fulfills both the operational and clinical promise include:

Clean up your data. Bad data causes errors and rework across operational and clinical processes. Incorporating and maintaining accurate product data is a critical step in gaining visibility, driving purchasing accuracy and capturing revenue. This will likely mean implementing a robust content management solution to help ensure accuracy in your materials management system, from item master to purchase order history.

Facilitate higher levels of collaboration between suppliers and providers. New technology tools are available that enable providers and suppliers to connect and intervene in real-time when discrepancies arise and resolve issues before they have a negative impact on shipping, point of invoice, or payment.

Implement a price automation solution. Hundreds of thousands of price changes occur daily, and the only way to maintain price accuracy is through automation. Cloud-based technology enables all trading partners to communicate and align contract and pricing information electronically, in real-time.

Complete automation won’t happen overnight, but we are making huge strides forward. It begins with letting go of the notion that fax, phone, spreadsheets, PDF files and email are viable and sustainable “automated” processes, and embracing new technology that will automate a wide range of processes with an exponentially higher degree of confidence and limited manual intervention. Only then can the industry truly become data driven.

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Peter Nelson

Peter Nelson

Peter Nelson is vice president of product management at Global Healthcare Exchange.