The healthcare system runs on people power. From nurses and physicians to food service and housekeeping, the hearts, minds, and hands of real people are the engines behind many aspects of healthcare delivery and organizational infrastructure.

As the use of artificial intelligence and robotics increase, how we approach the management of human resources will say a great deal about our values, workplace culture, and the healthcare industry writ large.

People Power/Human Capital

Human capital is currently at the center of care delivery in most any imaginable setting. Patients begin their journey via the intake or front desk process, and they continue along the trajectory through triage, assessment, or any number of clinical pathways. Whether in the ER, OR, ICU, home health/hospice, step-down, nursing home, or clinic, it is human beings who usher the patient throughout their care experience.

When a meal is delivered to a patient room or housekeeping sweeps, mops, and disinfects, even more human hands take part. Consider billing, quality assurance, HR, the cafeteria, or community liaisons — all involve crucial employees who populate the web of clinical and non-clinical staff.

The true valuing of human contribution to care delivery is central to employee engagement and high-quality workplace environments and culture. When we lose sight of such values, care becomes a commodity and workers amount to cannon fodder, especially when workers’ own relevance begins to come into question as technology rockets into wider employment.

What About AI and Robotics?

As artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics gain computing power and usefulness in the healthcare space, questions persist regarding how the human touch will be impacted in relation to direct patient care. It also remains to be seen what jobs will be replaced by robots and algorithms, as well as which personnel will continue to be seen as essential to healthcare delivery.

While robotic interfaces are already in place for medication distribution and other purposes, there are those who believe that some healthcare workers could become increasingly irrelevant as certain tasks are transitioned to non-human "members" of the team. Even now, robots provide healthcare consumer interfaces in some clinical settings, and robotic creatures are being tested in terms of their ability to provide emotional support for children and the elderly.

It has been said that nurses can never be fully replaced by robots, but anxiety remains regarding how some nursing tasks could be taken over by artificially intelligent robots that never need to take a meal break or use the bathroom.

In 50 years, could a socially conversant robot perform a psychosocial assessment or provide bedside patient teaching? Perhaps.

Other tasks related to both patient care and administration could also fall to AI, including billing, QI/QA, intake, certain triage algorithms, pharmacy, resume reviews and other hiring tasks, as well as meal preparation and delivery. We may embrace these changes on certain levels, while simultaneously worrying about the loss of skin-to-skin and face-to-face contact that remains to this day one of the hallmarks of human connection.

Empower the People

Even as the AI/robotics revolution sweeps through healthcare in the ensuing years, valuable human capital will still need to be nurtured and empowered, even more importantly as some staff members begin to question their own relevance in an increasingly automated world.

The question of future worker relevance continues to be raised by sociologists, philosophers, economists, and historians — this is not conjecture or hyperbole, but simply based on the direction of the world economy and rapidly developing and complex digital technologies.

As workers feel threatened by technology and their own potential irrelevance, appropriate support and leadership will be paramount. Retention of high-quality employees will remain critical, and some aspects of human care will remain in the hands of human staff members.

Thoughtful, forward-thinking healthcare facilities and organizations must continue to carefully examine these fundamental and unavoidable changes to the healthcare infrastructure. Human capital will never entirely lose its importance, and the strongest leaders within the healthcare realm will recognize this fact while keeping their finger on the pulse of the all-important resource of flesh-and-blood employees.