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Interview

For the Health Care Executive: Analyzing the Return on AI Investments and the Improvements Within the Total Care System


November 17, 2020

By Julie Gould

steve griffiths optumSteve Griffiths, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Optum Enterprise Analytics, discusses the Third Annual Optum Survey on AI in Health Care, and explains why health care system executives are seeing the fiscal value in AI more than ever recently and how they are leveraging AI to enhance virtual health capabilities while accelerating research to help alleviate pressures of the pandemic. 

Can you talk a little about the Third Annual Optum Survey on AI in Health Care? What were some of the major findings, and were any of them surprising?  

The survey captures how executives in hospitals and health systems, health plans, life sciences organizations and employers view AI’s ability to impact several areas of their businesses. We’re seeing that AI is improving health care outcomes and business performance, and therefore increasing confidence among health care executives. New findings for 2020 suggest leaders understand more than ever the value that AI can bring to health care. This year’s survey found that 59% of health care executives expect a return on their AI investments in under three years – which is nearly double the 31% of leaders surveyed in 2018 who expected to break even that quickly. 

Additionally, this year’s survey showed a strong desire to hire AI talent with 95% of health care executives indicating hiring talent with experience developing AI is a priority. 

The benefits of AI are clear, so these findings are not surprising. However, most of the health care industry still sees itself as behind the curve, as only 20% are in the late stages of deployment so it is encouraging to see the increase in anticipated ROI and nearly unanimous interest in hiring AI talent. 

How does the use of AI impact executives in health care systems? Have more adopted the use of AI? How has their confidence in these systems changed? 

As AI evolves into a must-have technology in almost every industry, health care organizations are continuing to develop, and even accelerate, their AI strategies in 2020. As mentioned before, the survey found that 59% of health care executives expect a return on their AI investments in under three years, so executives are seeing the fiscal value in AI more than ever. They are even more focused on their consumers and how investing in AI can dramatically improve individuals’ well-being. Among health care executives at organizations with an AI strategy or plans to create one, over half (55%) rank improving health outcomes or improving the patient experiences (55%) as the greatest impact of their investment in AI. These are clear indications that confidence in AI has certainly increased. 

How has staffing changed? Are executives of health care systems looking to expand teams to better support their AI solutions?  

More and more health care executives are looking to hire skilled analytic talent. There is an overall need for knowledge about analytics, predictions and data streams outside of an organization’s traditional information technology or informatics teams, and many are looking to grow their teams or seek out experienced partners.  

The survey found that 51% of health care executives are interested in employees who can develop AI, and 49% are interested in employees who can apply the results. 

Notably, 95% of health care executives said hiring talent with experience developing AI is a priority, with 66% of executives in late stages of AI deployment strongly agreeing, compared to 42% in early and 31% in middle stages.  

What is the return of investment for those utilizing AI programs?  

AI implementation is continuing to move in a positive direction; health care leaders are expecting to see a return on investment in just 3.6 years, down from 4.7 years in 2019. In fact, health care organizations we’ve seen that take too long to implement AI are at risk of being left behind. Companies that have more than $1 billion in revenue are 55 percent more likely to have an AI strategy in place and to have implemented it than companies with lower revenues. 

Over half (57%) of companies in late stages of AI deployment believe they will see savings in as soon as two years. 

There are varying expectations across different sectors in health care: 74% of life sciences executives expect AI investments will pay off within three years, compared to 55% of employers, 56% in health plans and 49% in hospitals. 

Can you talk a little about the use of AI during the pandemic? How has the use of AI helped enhance virtual health capabilities and positively impact research?  

Executives are leveraging AI to enhance virtual health capabilities and accelerate research to help alleviate pressures of the pandemic. 

For example, 56% of health care executives said their organizations accelerated or expanded their AI plans in response to the pandemic, transforming a quickly evolving technology into an even faster-evolving necessity. Additionally, 64% accelerated or expanded their AI plans in life sciences, 53% in employers, 60% in health plans and 54% in hospitals.  

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, organizations sought to use every tool at their disposal to overcome the unprecedented strain being placed on the industry. AI’s ability to automate workflows and help simplify the communication and analysis of complex data can help alleviate that burden. 

Depending on where organizations sat on the AI maturity curve, their pre-COVID-19 AI plans may have made an impact: Of those who reported being in the late stages of AI deployment, 51% believe they’ll achieve a return on their AI investments faster due to their pandemic response. Meanwhile, 68% of respondents in both the early and middle stages of deployment reported that it would take longer to recoup their investments in the wake of COVID-19, or that the pandemic had no impact on the timeline. Not only do the majority of early adopters believe they are going to break even faster, they also have additional tools available to them to help weather the storm. 

An example of these tools includes internet-connected remote patient monitoring, which enable more complete virtual health offerings. AI can help prioritize potential investigative targets for treatments or vaccines, and automating business processes can enable organizations to achieve more even when resources are under duress. Even more, 40% of health care executives plan to use AI for monitoring data from IoT (Internet of Things) devices, such as wearable technology, 37% for accelerating research for new therapeutic or clinical discoveries, and 37% for assigning codes for accurate diagnosis and reimbursement. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?  

We are encouraged to see these findings, as they confirm our belief that AI has the potential to deliver insights and operational efficiencies that can unlock better performance across health care–specifically better health outcomes, better consumer experiences, less physician burnout and a lower total cost of care. 

About Mr Griffiths

Steve Griffiths is the senior vice president and chief operating officer of Optum Enterprise Analytics where his focus is on helping their organization and clients with the innovative use of Optum’s curated data, leading analytic models, and broad bench of experts. He has more than 20 years of experience in health analytics management and he is passionate about helping businesses be successful in an ever-changing health care ecosystem.

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