A Harvard Business Review article last year offered a calm retort to fearful questions about whether machines are the world's future workers. "We could reframe the threat of automation," its authors suggested, "as an opportunity for augmentation."
That idea is in sync with the findings of Accenture's 2016 Digital Health Technology Vision report, which identifies five digital trends that will bolster the roles of humans.
"The outcome of a people-first, digital health strategy is that it liberates clinicians and doctors to work at their highest and best use," Kaveh Safavi, M.D., J.D. and senior managing director of Accenture's health practice, said in a June 22 statement.
"With the convergence of the five trends we've identified in our report," Safavi added, "doctors and clinicians will tap digital technologies to augment human labor, personalize care and free up clinicians to focus on where they're needed most."
Trend 1: Intelligent Automation
Tasks like collecting patient data are time-consuming but basic and an area that artificial intelligence (AI) technologies can address while humans see to more challenging tasks.
According to Accenture, health executives report investing more in machine learning and AI technologies today compared with two years ago, and 47 percent report the "extensive use" of automation for IT tasks and customer interactions.
Trend 2: The Liquid Workforce
By 2019, Accenture expects approximately 42 percent of the health care workforce to be contractors, freelancers or internal temporary positions. Imagine a specialist in Texas or Alaska able to consult with a patient in Florida or Ohio—or anywhere—via Skype.
"Automation can free up workers to build critical skills and grow," Safavi said. "And, rather than spending time on the routine, they can focus on more meaningful work that requires judgment and personal interaction."
Further, it's a way to address shortages in health care that slow the route to care.
Safavi explained in a video on the findings: "As soon as the need arises, you can find the right person to provide a service."
Trend 3: The Platform Economy
Nearly 40 percent of surveyed health executives said they believe online services, such as the ability to self-schedule an appointment or to access records, are "very critical" to business success.
For this reason, Accenture expects the demand for health-related application programming interfaces (APIs) to grow tenfold by 2021.
It also expects health plans to increasingly use health platforms that connect with customers in meaningful ways, such as providing incentives based on health data collected from wearables like smart watches and health bands.
Trend 4: Predictable Disruption
Alongside death and taxes, we can now add the expectation of the unexpected.
The great majority (86 percent) of those surveyed said they feel pressure to stay ahead of trends and keep reinventing their business before competitors do.
"Predictable disruption … recognizes the fact that change happens quickly, but we know it's going to happen," Safavi said. Health plans that stick with legacy models, he added, "will lose relevance as the industry pushes forward at unprecedented speed."
One way to do that, he suggested, is through collaboration with innovators outside the health care industry to "seize new disruptive opportunities."
Trend 5: Digital Trust
To the point about expecting the unexpected, Accenture predicts that cyber-attacks will cost hospitals $305 billion over the next five years.
Health organizations are faced with managing not only a variety of new data sources but also a tremendous number of connected devices—and the likelihood that employee-owned devices are the weakest link into their systems.
Accenture reports that 87 percent of health care executives believe breaches of data ethics pose risks as great as security breaches, and 80 percent report a strong or very strong demand for increased ethics controls among their knowledge workers.
"Exposure will continue to increase, so ongoing steps must be taken to protect the privacy and security of data and build digital trust," Safavi said.
Further, "those policies must be disclosed and understood to ensure the right consent and access to information," he added.
Accenture offers the example of Apple, which, when designing Apple Pay and HealthKit applied lessons learned from its iCloud breach. The ethics and security Apple applies to these products are "baked in," said the report, underscoring "the role trust plays as digitally powered companies look to disrupt their own markets and enter new ones."