Hospitals need to copy airline, bank, retail e-business models

Healthcare CEO suggests having patients provide personal health data via tablets

NEW ORLEANS -- Warner Thomas, CEO of Louisiana's largest healthcare system, sees genius in the way airlines, banks and retailers like Walmart and Amazon let users choose service preferences and the businesses gather insight into personal buying habits.

As hospitals become overwhelmed with IT initiatives created by federal mandates and mobile tech advances, they need to adopt IT models that let patients to do the lion's share of scheduling and medical data entry.

"If I said to you, you've got to call on the phone, wait on hold and they'll get to you ... you can't use the Internet anymore, you'd freak," he said. "But back in 1995, we were like, I don't want to go on the Internet. I don't want to do all this work."

To be successful in the future, healthcare systems should emulate the airline, bank and retail industries as a means of streamlining workflows and reducing labor costs, he said.

Thomas, CEO of Ochsner Health Systems, was speaking to a packed hall Monday at the HIMSS 2013 Annual Conference and Exhibition here.

"There are three things I know: One, our customers want things more mobile; two, they want to get it faster; and three, they want it cheaper. Pretty basic," Thomas said, adding. "Are we giving it to them?"

Thomas cited how bank automated teller machines (ATMs) have reduced the need for bank tellers while adding customer convenience, and how airline reservation systems allow consumers to purchase tickets and choose their seats online without personal contact.

He also lauded airlines for reducing the number of flights while making boarding times more accurate -- and thus significantly boosting profits.

Airlines used to base a plane's estimated time of arrival on when the pilot was in a landing pattern, "and it was wrong 70 to 80% of the time," Thomas said.

Airlines now use data analytics, weather conditions, unique airport dynamics and the time of day a plane in calculating departure and arrival times. Today, the estimates are right 80% of the time and ground crews are rarely idle and planes no longer sit on tarmacs waiting for gates to become available.

"That saves them tens of millions of dollars a year. These are the kinds of things we ought to be thinking about," he said.

Walmart and Amazon use algorithms to see not only what consumers have purchased, but also what they don't choose, which helps the companies determine how to better market products.

Walmart generates 2.5 petabytes of data every hour from one million customers that visit their brick and mortar and online retail sites, Thomas said.

With eBooks, Amazon knows which books a customer looked at and didn't buy, how fast he or she read a book that was bought, or whether the customer started reading a book but didn't finish it.

"They use this data to help us buy more stuff from them. Why don't we do that in healthcare?" Thomas asked.

Thomas suggested that patients be handed a tablet when they check in at a health care office to let them list family medical history, current conditions, current and past medications and other information.

Conversely, healthcare systems should be able to access insurance claims data so that they have more complete patient information that can then be automatically added to a personal electronic medical record (EMR). If a patient goes to another healthcare facility, the claims data should automatically update their primary facility, he said.

"Even though our system may be integrated, one-third of patient care happens in other hospitals and clinics," he said. "We have to have all that data put together."

Thomas challenged IT executives to learn what patients want and to help create systems that address those needs, while cutting costs and improving care.

"When we put systems in, do they provide better and safer patient experiences? Can you check that box? Do you have a situation where you're helping to optimize it?" Thomas said. "Are you helping us optimize systems? Do you understand the problems we face as an organization?"

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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