Healthfinch Seeks to Take Automation in Healthcare Up a Level

The late 19th century saw a number of advances in elevator equipment. For example, the first electric elevator was built in 1880, and manufacturers introduced safety bumpers and automatic stopping technology in subsequent decades.

By 1900, many models of elevator had gone “driverless” and could be controlled by someone inside without any specialized knowledge. As a result, building managers no longer needed to employ elevator operators. But their disappearance spooked some would-be riders, says Jonathan Baran. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Healthfinch, a Madison, WI-based startup that develops software to automate routine tasks performed by healthcare providers in medical clinics.

“People would walk into these newfangled automated elevators and then walk right out because they didn’t see the attendant. They didn’t feel comfortable. They didn’t trust in the automation,” Baran says.

But the public eventually adapted, and Baran is betting that the same thing will happen at 21st Century medical clinics. He claims clinics can save time and money by adopting his company’s digital tools that let physicians delegate certain tasks to nurses and other colleagues.

Manufacturers eventually got people to feel comfortable riding in elevators without an attendant present, Baran says. They accomplished this through advertising campaigns, as well as a recorded message that told a rider to push the button of her desired floor to get the elevator moving, and a big red button to stop the machine.

“These elevator companies had kind of a marketing problem, where they had to get people comfortable with automation,” Baran says. “The question that I’ve been posing is, ‘What is the big red button of healthcare? What is the thing that gets people comfortable with automation?’ We believe the answer is delegation.”

Healthfinch develops software applications for tasks such as fulfilling prescription refill requests and planning visits to the doctor’s office. The startup, which Baran says has grown to about 50 employees since launching in 2011, recently raised a $6 million round of outside investment. More than 4,000 healthcare providers use Healthfinch’s software, the company says.

To understand how Healthfinch’s tools can facilitate delegation, consider that a primary care doctor on average spends 30 minutes a day reviewing requests for medication refills, Baran says. Some of these requests require close scrutiny, but for many of them the approval decision comes down to a few pieces of information, such as the date of a the patient’s most recent visit or the last time lab work was done. Physicians can use Healthfinch’s Refill Management application to set conditions that, when satisfied, grant permission to nurses and other providers at the clinic to order refills.

The overarching goal is to get physicians to spend less time in a given day on basic tasks, which in theory allows them to concentrate more on the work that they alone have the knowledge and credentials to do.

“The core underlying challenge that this industry has right now is there’s far more work than there are people to do that work,” Baran says. “For all this routine work that physicians and their staffs have to deal with on a regular basis, what we need is automation.”

Baran says that the effects of increased automation in healthcare will look different than in other industries. Whereas advances in manufacturing technologies have resulted in robots replacing human workers on some factory floors, Baran says the effect of … Next Page »

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