As the saying goes among software industry veterans, the cost burden of a highly customized product is applied to the customer “up-front and over-and-over, every day, inside and outside.”
Hospitals and other companies need to be somewhat aware of commercial software development economics, as it applies to buyers, since they are buying so much IT these days. A software product company does best when the high cost of developing the software is spread across many customers that use the same software as it is. Customization changes that. It requires each customer for which customization is done to bear the distinct and direct costs of that development that is uniquely done for them. There may be ways to economize the process, but it becomes substantial when much of the delivered software is customized. When the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for the software customer is considered, as it should be, customization costs becomes a big concern.
That is broken down as:
Up-front – The customer starts paying from contract-signing, before they can even access the product and long before they can really understand what will result from the process and assess its value.
Over-and-over – In that mode, customers usually think up and request additional changes from time to time. That then costs additional project dollars, and changes sometime become a continual process.
Every day – All enhancements that the company routinely makes to its base product must be specifically tailored to the unique version each customer is using. Looking at such effort for all of its customers and the additional overhead of tracking what software changes everyone has, this customization-focused approach, overall, is a more expense way to run the business of the software provider. That ongoing additional expense is reflected in all the pricing and fees the software company charges its customers.
Inside and outside – In addition to the costs paid to the software provider (outside), a significant customization effort requires that the hospital’s own (inside) employees – often some very busy key employees – are required to spend time documenting their needs. They must explain their work to the software companies analysts and review the output of various stages of the custom development lifecycle.
Some may suggest, and others believe, that major customization is the only way to obtain software that users in a variety of hospitals can effectively and enjoyably use in their particular environment, but that is simply not the case. Users don’t customize Microsoft Office applications like Word and Excel but are presented with many options to pick preferences and configuration settings, and provide localization data used by the application. Long term, users and the companies that buy applications come to understand that very particular choices that are applied in major customization efforts don’t really change the value of the use of the application in ways that could not have been done with truly good workflow and user experience design, by professionals, up front. And, overall, the idea that customization is some kind of norm has to be considered in a broader context. What other non-software products that healthcare providers, or the individuals who lead it, buy are customized ? Probably not many because of its being cost-prohibitive when the impact of custom development is considered against what can be achieved with readily available options and configurability.
The long-term, strategic and most insidious cost of customization is the bad habit that it enables among management. Faced with a truly innovative product, which necessarily represents change, leaders and staff in hospitals can, and do, customize their new products back to the familiar appearance, sequences, artifacts (forms,reports, etc.) and activities that they have used for decades, nullifying expertly-designed process innovation. Because that which is familiar is relatively comfortable. Can anyone calculate the total cost of healthcare’s infamous resistance to change ?
The approaches outlined below have earned for our ActionCue® Clinical Intelligence product very high user satisfaction scores, many spontaneous statements of praise and 100% customer retention from its inception. Cost conservation is addressed at every part of the application and our operation. So, it doesn’t mean that we don’t listen to customer input or modify the product for it. We simply are prudent in making changes that truly make the product more valuable and the customer experience more rewarding.
A recent article in Medical Economics, “The Promise of Next Generation EHRs” was an interesting read. It got me thinking, and there were a few parts of the article that left me uneasy, given the challenges in healthcare today.
First, the article cited reports that point to software as the primary administrative burden to physicians’ productivity. The article notes that inefficiencies in software lead to click fatigue and multitasking, which ultimately lead to mistakes.
Indeed, mistakes are very serious problems in healthcare. However, it’s not only physicians who suffer from inadequate software - nurses, clinicians and a host of administrative staff are spending most of their day using various software systems and applications.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, while stressing the need for flexibility and usability in information technology for healthcare orgs, the author specifically advocates that the best software is “designed by clinicians”. Ironically, this “designed by clinicians” paradigm is a major contributor to the dissatisfaction many users have with healthcare software products – including EHRs.
Of course, healthcare application vendors would be silly not to include significant input from current and former clinicians. Clinicians’ hands-on experience is invaluable to clinical in the form of environmental background, workflows, user scenarios, use cases, specific requirements and other types of content.
The much greater concern over healthcare institutions jumping onto the “designed by clinicians” bandwagon is that it quickly leads to the idea that software must be designed, not by just any clinicians, but by their own in-house team of clinicians.
Thus, when considering new software products, healthcare leaders are quick to ask the vendor, “Can we customize it?” (meaning a unique instance of a product, custom-developed for an organization) before they have seen much of the existing product. That question is where the real trouble begins. It is far from the end of the story, however.
Improving software in healthcare is a noble - and very necessary – goal. But when the rubber meets the road, software designed exclusively by clinicians leads to three major pain points that are already widespread in healthcare organizations.
The best software vendors use highly trained with a wide breadth of expertise in fields like information engineering, perceptive science, psychology, user interface (UI) and user experience (UX), for starters.
It takes all these skills and more to shape an optimal UX for a software product. Unfortunately, not every software developer is also gifted with design skills. Similarly, clinicians are untrained in the various disciplines of UX employed by a design expert during the product development process. As end-users, clinicians are often better at describing the problem rather then envisioning “clean slate” solutions that could drive the desired results.
In other words, both sides may be operating outside their area of expertise. Thus, having clinicians tell programmers what they want can lead to problems such as:
To avoid this scenario, I feel that the best outcomes result from software designed not by, but with clinicians at multiple points during the design, development and maintenance phases of the software lifecycle.
In recent years, custom development of healthcare management platforms has become ever more common. Vendors are eager to offer customization because they can charge more for the end product, while simply passing on the additional development costs directly to the customer. For some, in fact, it’s become a major part of their business model.
The more vendors provide custom development, the more customers ask for it, and so begins a vicious cycle. But the ugly truth is, while custom development or “customization” of healthcare IT products is lucrative for the manufacturer, it doesn’t necessarily benefit the customer. Much of customization work amounts to simple personal preferences which have no effect on patient care outcomes. Custom-developed products
One of the most important skills professional software designers have is the applied fundamental of design thinking. Design thinking uses a set of defined principles and constructs, combined with a very intentional process, to realize a desirable end product. Design thinking helps product designers fight the (very human) urge to “go with what you know”.
Most of us, when asked how a new system or product should look or work, will describe something very much like what we have used in the past – regardless of how well that product met our needs. People tend to lean on familiarity (often without even realizing it) which results in a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” attitude. It is this attitude that holds back much-needed progress in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare organizations.
The unintended consequences of this perpetual cycle are:
After a few years and many thousands of dollars, too many healthcare organizations find themselves still encountering the same problems.
So what should healthcare organizations do? It will require a major attitude shift to get out of the rut that’s been dug over decades of stagnation and frustration at ineffective systems. Meaningful change requires buy-in, starting with management on down through all levels of the organization.
Here are some starting principles for effective change:
The takeaway here is that optimal product design “takes a village” – a multi-disciplinary team that includes, but is not controlled by, end users (clinicians, physicians, administrative staff).
ActionCue CI is built upon this principle. Our innovative solution was developed in partnership with clinicians, as well as highly trained UX/UI product designers, to address known problems in ways that go beyond what myopic visions of what so-called ”new” solutions can lead to. The dashboard is configurable to meet the unique needs of risk managers, clinicians, and healthcare executives while avoiding the pitfalls of full customization, resulting in a more cost-effective and intuitive product that end users love. By providing configurability without customization, ActionCue CI delivers an affordable solution that still meets specific users’ needs.
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Everyone knows time is money, and healthcare consumes too much money. Therefore, it stands to reason that a major objective for hospitals and healthcare systems should be to save time and resources at all levels of the organization and throughout the supply chain. There are several facets to the drive for efficiency, but we’ll focus on the three main levels that successful performance improvement tools can make a positive impact on productivity and cost.
One way to pass time savings onto organizations is to operate the SaaS model of delivery, in which software is licensed on a subscription basis and is centrally hosted. This eliminates the need for incremental infrastructure—or the maintenance of it—in order to obtain additional benefits. There are several additional benefits in operational cost by not offering the “package and deliver” approach as an option for the customer, as some companies do. A commitment to operating at high levels of efficiency means providers are able to make the acquisition and continued use of the platform remarkably inexpensive.
One of the most impactful ways Prista passes efficiency onto organizations is by reducing the amount of customization utilized within our business model. Although it’s important to be responsive to customers’ needs and requests, the vast majority of healthcare IT customization is based on personal preferences, rather than needs, especially those aimed at imitating paper forms, previous processes, or outdated mandates. The fact is, customization can be a very lucrative business model for vendors and a very large, ongoing expense for customers. This is detailed in our recent blog post “Customization: The Gift That Keeps On Costing.” Aside from the real-dollar costs of significant ongoing customization, there is the added investment of time for key hospital staff and management in creating detailed requirements, reviewing revised software and testing functionality throughout the customization process, not to mention the learning curve of healthcare professionals on the language, disciplines and processes of the software business.
In contrast to the customization-oriented model, successful providers should focus on the turnkey nature of their application. A great deal of healthcare and clinical domain expertise went into the design of the ActionCue CI platform, so that workflow processes, terminology, content selection, and styling are already present “out of the box.” This way, organizational leaders don’t need to spend time specifying what they need or expect in the application. Aside from the healthcare knowledge applied, UI/UX designers should deliver the application to the customer as a finished product useable by the customer within days of start-up, rather than as toolkit that takes six to nine months before the “go live” date.
To accommodate the variability of customer types, including short-term acute hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers, and home health and rehab, and to adapt to the evolution of the quality-safety efforts over time, we made ActionCue CI extremely configurable, so customers, sometimes with the assistance of support staff, can adapt the application, using plain English configuration selections, quickly, efficiently and usually without any cost.
The specific design of the application should save time among key users throughout the organization. By ensuring the routine and administrative functions of the application are easy to use and understand, organizations almost never have to hire data analysts or additional clerical staff to assist with workload or technical tasks.
ActionCue CI’s fast, intuitive event reporting reduces the time between an event being reported and getting resolved and allows users to easily and quickly prove they are monitoring quality within the organization. The systems’ workflows were designed to not only match the natural tasks and processes of users, but also shape their behavior by encouraging methodologies that produce targeted results, and increase efficiency and accountability. The design goes beyond ease-of-use to advance the way in which healthcare organizations engage with information in an application.
Using ActionCue, staff can create comprehensive, insightful and simple reports within minutes, which reduces the amount of time executives spend in meetings analyzing confusing or incomplete data sets. At a glance, healthcare professionals can see the real-time condition of their entire facility’s quality and performance initiatives.
SaaS-model companies, such as Prista, operate on the latest technology platforms, facilitating rapid development and deployment of changes, making them far easier and less expensive to maintain. Companies that have started out as such build their entire operations around utilizing the most up-to-date technologies and methodologies, so their internal operating expenses are lower than those of traditional software companies. These and other efficiencies allow SaaS-model companies to pass their savings along to customers, driving down prices, usually as non-capitalized monthly or annual subscriptions.
Additionally, Prista support staff, with whom customers first and regularly engage, have credentials in Quality Management and Safety. Those staff members also have input on the product design, so that content delivered is accurate, correctly applied, and easy to understand. The ongoing working relationships provide users with a sense of partnership in which they gain knowledge of how the application works, and how it can be best applied to their role.
Efficiency was a guiding principle for the Prista business model, and it’s incorporated into every facet of the ActionCue CI platform. We’re proud to pass our savings along to our customers and ensure ActionCue is driving efficiency at the larger organizational level, as well as making the day-to-day functions of key users more simple and enjoyable. If you’d like to learn more about driving efficiency within your healthcare organization, check out this recent blog post.
This post is part 1 of our 7 Innovation series. Interested in reading more? Download the 7 Innovations that Deliver Strategic Value in Healthcare White Paper
We frequently describe ActionCue Clinical Intelligence as redefining and facilitating the management process for quality-safety improvement. Understanding that taking on quality-safety improvement can bring some apprehension, we want to make clear that we do this to bring a radical increase in efficiency to the process of improving patient care delivery for clinical staff, managers and executives.
Whether a facility or system’s solutions for quality and safety management, tracking, and reporting consists of paper and Excel spreadsheets, internally developed systems, or commercial applications, most of those scenarios have something in common: They require clinical management to spend a good bit of time on manual work. This can include:
It should be noted that in many cases, a good bit of that manual work could be done by administrative workers but is too interwoven in the clinical and quality-safety work to hand it off without major disruption in productivity. In other cases, it requires the clinical professionals to develop skills in information technology and data manipulation that should arguably not be required of them. Both of these instances seriously dilute the application of their best skills, education and professional abilities to improving quality-safety.
Unfortunately, many clinical managers and their senior management accept this kind of manual effort, and the resources it consumes, as the norm for working in quality, safety and improvement. Some believe it is the only way for solutions to work exactly as they want. Even by turning to multiple commercial software vendors, much of this same function building is required as the vendor happily customizes their product and charges significantly for it both upfront and on a continuous basis, while tying up hospital staff in planning and reviewing the customization. After-sale charges can even become the vendor’s primary business model. At Epic Systems’ User Group Meeting in September of 2016, CEO Judy Faulkner said she identifies Epic as a programming shop. The company spends just over 50 percent of operating expenses on research and development each year. With that perspective, how likely is it that such a vendor is going to make the application itself match the needs of its users, or reduce the work of installation, amount of training needed, or degree to which the vendor’s billable time is needed for ongoing administration and updates?
Costs that may be dispersed into the operating budget are often “hidden,” but really add up when considering the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for the solution. Almost all of this fits into the “administrative overhead” component of healthcare costs, which is understood by most in the C-suite of hospitals today to be increasing disproportionately.
Once this “build our own” mentality sets in, inertia takes hold. It is common for quality and safety solution acquisitions to focus on one of these “toolkits,” or basic products needing customization that lasts months after purchase. Over time, the organization feels as if it has invested so much into their status quo solution that they certainly don’t want to make a substantial change and start the process all over again. This is especially true when it could impact the many overt work processes in which they have also invested time, money and training.
Many managers initiating searches for quality and safety management solutions may not realize that a well-designed “turnkey” application—embodying not only effective technology but also expertly-crafted healthcare operational design—can be configured in days, not months, to fit their organizations and operations, and similarly be reconfigured to match their evolving needs. While turnkey applications such as ActionCue may be uncommon in healthcare IT, distancing the organization from the practice of costly extensive internal or vendor-teamed software development is something companies in almost all other verticals have done over the years. Although this requires some adjustment in perspective when reviewing products designed for a large healthcare marketplace, the very common mentality of “doing what you’ve always done” is something healthcare providers can simply no longer afford.
For decades, I practiced and taught others a model of developing new software products in which the creator begins with at least two innovation concepts before thinking about technology choices, features or even architecture. These concepts must represent a new way to reach important objectives, not just tweak current tasks and activities. They must eliminate current hurdles and transcend problems. This model has proven to be the best way to ensure that the benefits of the product stem from fundamental values, are sustainable, provide room for growth, and build on an evergreen strategy.
In some cases, healthcare staff, management and executive IT users are hesitant to change the way they do things, but such changes have been proven to be the only way to make substantive progress. These innovative concepts are at the core of Prista’s ActionCue Clinical Intelligence platform, helping healthcare professionals reach real quality improvement goals that are fundamental in alleviating the operational, financial and regulatory issues with which hospital leaders wrestle every day. Even if hospital leaders believe the quality and safety activities in their organization are productive and successful, we believe those activities could be significantly more effective, positively impacting patient outcomes, revenue, staff workload, management and executive participation, and the culture of quality in the organization. The following are four ways healthcare organizations and management can advance healthcare quality and safety.
For individuals and organizations, doing “what we’ve always done” is comforting, pays respect to past decisions and accomplishments, and, importantly, avoids any risk in trying to improve by doing things differently. Some will focus on “risk” in that statement; others on “better.” Improvement, something we discuss often, inescapably means change, and the degree to which we avoid changes in process can systematically limit improvement. The tendency is to start rationalizing complacency and praising stability, solidarity and tradition.
The problem with the willingness to hold on to traditional activities manifests itself when organizations maintain the functional silos of Quality, Risk Management and Performance Improvement in hospitals. Whether individuals, groups or entire departments, tradition supports these institutions having different leaders, processes, tools, methodologies and data. With these functions compartmentalized, their objectives—and rewards—are limited to their respective stages of development instead of contributing to the overall goal of improvement. Simply reporting metrics and incidents is the finish line for some, while others carry on with other activities. This leads to dependence upon human endeavor to unify all those differences, in traditional mechanical ways, to serve the goal all healthcare organizations should be working toward: better patient care and outcomes delivered with efficiency.
The ActionCue application provides innovative consolidation of all performance metrics. No more silo-ing of core measures, audits, EOC, or protocols. Event reporting and investigation and improvement action plans are highly integrated. All data and information flows together and is readily accessible, enabling each task and activity to tie into performance improvement. Not only does this design serve the common goal better, it saves the staff, managers and executives a lot of time and mental exertion.
Historically, most of a hospital quality department’s activities were focused on submitting data, reports and documents to external regulators and other stakeholders. A good portion of that information is intended for licensure/accreditation, long-term research and, especially in recent years, reimbursement. The aim in hospitals, typically among overworked managers, has become to “check the box” noting required submissions have been accomplished. Using the compiled information internally to improve quality and safety has become secondary to executives looking for checked boxes, and such perspectives tend to trickle down as real and perceived guidance. Yet, the return and yield from the submissions to those external organizations, in terms of enabling patient care improvement, is usually disappointing and always later than desired. With that view of comparative value, it is sometimes difficult for clinicians to remain motivated to genuinely improve quality and safety, and it’s equally difficult to get budgetary investment for innovative, efficient tools and processes as opposed to maintaining the traditional—and sub-optimal—activities and approaches.
ActionCue is far more than a reporting tool. It is a composite platform for the entire clinical staff, management and other stakeholders to work collaboratively and efficiently, while pursuing continuous improvement, which has long been little more than a slogan or buzzword. Its value in executive awareness and required reporting is exceptional. Users report a near elimination of “survey preparation” and surveyors from several states, as well as accreditors such as CIHQ, TJC and DNV, have commended its clarity, accessibility, accountability and demonstrated utilization and results.
Many healthcare IT users have come to understand that many applications are little more than an electronic filing cabinet, mostly utilized for storage and retrieval of information in the same format as that in which it was input. This places a burden on staff to compile commonly used information, perform calculations, and turn raw data into intelligence and insight. For a long time, organizations’ leaders have accepted that quality and safety efforts require a large amount of time and effort in mundane process mechanics. Applications serving important enterprise functions should focus on collaboration and workflows that not only match the natural tasks and processes of users, but also shape the users’ behavior by embodying methodologies and disciplines that yield the targeted results with efficiency and accountability.
Additionally, when the application is designed to partner with the user in his or her work through well-known, disciplined workflows, it can provide valuable, relevant, up-to-date content in the context of the task at hand, such as researched industry and academic performance measures, evolving best practices, educational materials, forms, contact information and a wealth of other materials the user, or the user’s work group, no longer have to spend time researching, compiling and updating. This sort of sophisticated, enabling design should become commonplace in healthcare IT applications, as it has been for decades in other fields.
ActionCue’s design goes beyond ease-of-use to advance the way in which healthcare organizations engage with information in an application. The platform proves to be an enjoyable working team member, increasing productivity and facilitating education and improvement towards goals. ActionCue users develop and maintain a strong “Culture of Quality.
The technology used to support hospitals’ important quality and safety work usually starts out as a “toolkit” in which the organization invests a lot of time, money and attention to build and maintain the intended “solution.” Ranging from paper and Excel spreadsheets, to internally developed tools and applications, to major commercial systems that undergo extensive customization by their vendors and “add-on” technicians and analysts, healthcare organizations spend a lot of money and resources—often incrementally staffing consultants and specialists— to get the job done. Despite the high costs, many organizations believe such an approach is the only one that will work, and it is often based largely on what they have used historically. In such a setting, real innovation is rare and very expensive.
When an application provider has utilized healthcare expertise in its core design, delivery and support functions, it can anticipate a great deal of the functionality needed by its users and apply best practices to deliver a “turnkey application,” ready to run right after the sale. Foregoing full customization can be readily accepted as a trade-off for saving tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in visible and hidden costs. Turnkey applications also frequently have value-adding content that is continuously researched and updated, providing constant improvement in the use of the application. Setting a high bar when reviewing turnkey applications and providers has long been the standard approach for organizations of all sizes outside of healthcare that are adept at considering total cost of ownership (TCO).
The next step forward in evaluation of a solution is the true Software as a Service, or SaaS, business model. With the fundamental distinction of being web-based and accessed via a browser, SaaS applications save buyers a great deal by avoiding the costs of acquiring and maintaining expensive computing and storage infrastructure to support on-premise systems. Leading companies offering SaaS model applications go much further than “renting software,” thought by some to be an unnecessary expense. The best practitioners of the SaaS model accomplish three major things that are impossible, difficult or very expensive with other models.
Understanding what SaaS-model companies represent and offer, healthcare executives can appreciate that this means of operating is exactly what is needed in the strategic advancement of healthcare information technology.
As a fully actualized example of a SaaS-model offering, Prista and its ActionCue application transform the relationship an organization has with its information technology. No longer a bottom-line cost, source of frustration for staff, or drain on productivity, ActionCue is a critical facilitator of clinical performance improvement, providing tactical and strategic benefits for the organization’s people and processes, and delivering ROI.
Taken one by one, any of these departures from the status quo would be valuable and beneficial to a hospital and even more so for a healthcare system. Each of these steps forward would be truly strategic, with broad and long-term positive effects. But taken altogether, these changes in thinking and the realization of them in a platform like ActionCue Clinical Intelligence is truly a transformational step forward for healthcare organizations.