The medical industry has been notoriously slow to move from paper records, fax transmissions, and phone communication to digital records management and electronic communication. A specialist doctor's visit is oftentimes a startling juxtaposition of the most cutting-edge technology with the most frustratingly throwback customer service.
There are devices that can monitor a fetus's tiny heart in utero, implant an artificial lens in someone's eye, or use a robotic hand to retrain paralyzed muscles -- but the check-in process for patients is a person at a desk handing over a clipboard with 20 pages of paperwork to fill out and then pulling out a large binder to find information on the patient's insurance plan. Half the time, the doctors' notes and records related to the procedure are hand-written and filed away after being keyed into an ancient desktop.
It's well past time for healthcare to join the connected, cloud-based, electronic world -- and automation is an important part of that. But real estate investors, such as those invested in healthcare REITs, or real estate investment trusts, need not necessarily worry that it will cost them anything. Much of it will have little to no impact on the physical spaces where medicine is practiced.
Priorities in healthcare automation
While the most glamorous -- and talked-about -- aspect of healthcare automation is robotics, this isn't the area that will see the broadest, most urgent implementation of automated solutions. To know what is, you should first know where the most money is being wasted: administration.
According to a study conducted by health insurance company Humana (NYSE: HUM) in 2019, "administrative complexity" in the healthcare system wastes $265.6 billion per year in the United States, while "failure of care coordination" wastes anywhere from $27.2 billion to $78.2 billion. The former is an unspeakably large amount of money that somehow is also impossible to track within even a $10 billion margin of error. It's no wonder, then, that two focus areas for automation are document management and workflow automation.
Automation in healthcare includes systems that automatically text patients to remind them of upcoming appointments (along with COVID-19 safe check-in protocols) instead of an office admin. It also includes data processing workflows that enable medical staff to enter patient data in a few keystrokes instead of a painstaking, multilayer process. And it includes systems for safe, secure information sharing between doctors, labs, and patients.
If a few things are immediately evident from this short list of potential applications, it's that implementation will improve the standard of care for patients while reducing busywork tasks for all types of medical professionals. This automation will be handled through software and cloud-based solutions that will likely require little more from buildings except the best-possible internet connection.
Healthcare automation in hospitals
Another area of healthcare where automation is being implemented on a broad scale is hospitals. Again, we're not talking about replacing human surgeons with laser-wielding robots. Instead, hospital automation covers such basic patient care tasks as controlling the lighting and HVAC in the rooms, as well as all sorts of IT automation to reduce manual data entry.
While this may involve some upgrading of systems throughout hospital buildings, it won't by any means require outfitting every single hospital room in the manner of a Starfleet sickbay. And certainly, none of the automation currently transforming the medical industry will reduce the amount of space needed to treat patients. Unlike the telehealth boom, this isn't about less space; it's about reducing needless, repetitive admin labor; faulty communication; and wasted time.
Progress is good for the bottom line
If anything, real estate investors should be excited about the advances in healthcare automation, because less money wasted means greater profits -- as well as plenty of additional new technologies and companies in which to invest.