Skip to main content

Automated OR Scheduling Addresses a Key Hospital Pain Point

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   April 05, 2023

Allina Health is seeing immediate results with a technology platform that automates the OR scheduling process and helps match surgeons to times and procedures.

Editor's note: This article appears in the June 2023 edition of HealthLeaders magazine.

Experts have often said that the healthcare industry needs to adopt innovative technologies used by the banking and retail industries to become more effective.

At Allina Health, a platform being called the "Open Table for surgery scheduling" is proving that point.

The Minneapolis-based 12-hospital, 90+ clinic network is using an AI-enhanced software platform developed by digital health company Qventus to map out its operating room schedule. The technology integrates with the EHR and automates a block-based process that formerly took up hours of staff time and effort and caused a considerable amount of stress.

"The old process was manual and hadn't really changed in 20 to 30 years," says William Evans, the health system's vice president of surgical services and orthopedics. "It was inefficient, cumbersome, and laborious."

The OR is both a cost center and key business unit of the hospital, with one study estimating costs at $36 to $37 per minute and another report indicating ORs make up 40% of a hospital's expenses and generate 70% of revenues. With health systems struggling with their bottom lines amid a bad economy and post-pandemic pressures, improving OR management is at the top of hospital leadership's to-do lists, and technology that can automate that process is getting serious attention.

[See also: CommonSpirit Health Uses Analytics Technology to Optimize the OR].

Evans says Allina Health recognized they would need new technology to both improve OR utilization and revenues and make life easier for stressed staff and surgeons. The old process, in which surgeons were responsible for filling up blocks of time and new or visiting surgeons tried to fit in enough procedures to qualify for block scheduling, left too many holes in the OR schedule and gave surgeons and schedulers headaches trying to map out when they could schedule a surgery or grab procedures in need of a surgeon.

Allina Health decided to implement an enterprise-wide, automated scheduling platform, which works along the same lines as a scheduling platform for tables at a restaurant or seats at a theater.

"Allina Health tends to be on the forward edge of [healthcare innovation]," Evans says. "I think we're always finding new ways to use technology. This just seemed like a perfect place."

In a phased roll-out, the health system partnered with Qventus, based in Mountain View, California, to launch the platform for its DaVinci surgical robots at Abbott Northwestern, then expanded the process to include established surgeons who qualify for block scheduling, then to newer and visiting surgeons who hadn't yet qualified for block scheduling. Surgeons are responsible for scheduling their own procedures, he says, and often struggle to balance their time, running the risk of losing out on prime slots in the OR if they can't stay true to their schedule at least 75% of the time.

Evans says it was important to offer this tool on a voluntary basis, rather than mandating that surgeons use it.

"We want them to embrace the technology because it makes their lives better, rather than forcing it on them as a mandate," he says. "Once they see what it can do (including taking only 20 minutes from submitting a request for OR time to approval), they'll accept it and work with it."

According to statistics supplied by the health system and Qventus, Allina Health, which deployed the new platform in mid-2022, saw 3.5 cases added per OR per month in the first four months, including a 36% increase in cases per surgical robot per month. Evans says that success has enabled Allina Health to not only increase robotic surgeries but also add more robots.

On the other side of the ledger, the platform helped to release more than 100 hours of OR block time earlier each month, enabling surgeons to better manage their schedules and allowing the health system to quickly fill up open spots and times left open due to scheduling errors or unforeseen issues. In addition, the platform automatically schedules 2 out of every 3 elective cases, helping to improve a key revenue generator.

According to Evans, the AI technology not only helps surgeons manage their time, but also matches open slots to surgeons based on their typical use patterns and the health system's needs. It also matches surgeons to available surgeries based on their qualifications.

Evans says the health system saw almost immediate benefits with the platform, with surgeons looking to use the technology to plan their schedules during the first phase of roll-out, which was supposed to be limited to robotic surgeries.

"We quickly exceeded our performance goals," he says, noting the platform significantly reduced the workload for schedulers and allowed them to address other administrative tasks that may have been pushed to the back-burner. The health system also saw a reduction in surgeon and staff turnover, he says, and might be used as an incentive to attract new employees.

"There will be some unexpected benefits that we haven't seen yet," he says. "This frees up a lot of time for surgeons and staff and makes their lives better. That's a huge advantage. Automation was the missing piece of the puzzle there."

“We want them to embrace the technology because it makes their lives better, rather than forcing it on them as a mandate. Once they see what it can do (including taking only 20 minutes from submitting a request for OR time to approval), they'll accept it and work with it.”

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Allina Health has partnered with digital health company Qventus to automate its OR scheduling platform.

The technology not only helps surgeons manage their schedule better, but also uses AI to fill available time slots and helps match procedures to available surgeons.

The Minneapolis-based health system has added 3.5 surgeries per OR per month, thanks to the technology, while seeing 36% more robotic surgeries per month. They've also freed up more than 100 hours of block time early and are automatically scheduling 2 of every 3 elective cases.


Get the latest on healthcare leadership in your inbox.