By Steven Eisner and Kevin Chlopecki

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people work, live, and communicate. In healthcare, hospitals and outpatient facilities have leaned heavily on telemedicine and connected technologies—for socially distant or at-home care—to sustain patient care and keep their own businesses physically and fiscally healthy.

Consider that during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic from March to December 2020, hospital and health systems had total losses exceeding $323 billion, according to the American Hospital Association. On top of that, healthcare traditionally delivered at brick-and-mortar hospitals shifted—and continues to shift—to outpatient care sites or hospital-at-home services. 

Moreover, emergency services are expected to decline by 5% by 2029 while ambulatory surgery center volumes are likely to jump 14% thanks to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services expanding the number of procedures covered by the end of 2023. These trends, compounded by the pandemic, led hospitals and providers to rethink ways to deliver care with an emphasis on efficiency and cost reduction. 

These changes also impact vendors that serve healthcare facilities. Hardware and software support services are viewed by healthcare providers as assets that can improve efficiency, but also as a cost to try to reduce. For this reason, healthcare-focused service and support vendors must innovate to drive fundamental change that will impact service delivery today and for years to come. The future of service encompasses new technologies that change the way manufacturers communicate, share data, educate, and provide valuable in-person or remote service to their customers.

Technology for a Better Customer Experience

Remote services and systems monitoring capabilities gained increased importance during the pandemic, as hospitals and healthcare facilities limited onsite physical access to essential personnel. Service providers and manufacturers were also forced to switch to a virtual office environment and had to be able to resolve medical equipment issues during the initial lockdown from these virtual offices. Fortunately, equipment and service providers that had already invested in remote technologies were far better prepared to deliver service when lockdowns occurred.

Take healthcare hardware and software vendors, for example. Some companies, such as Konica Minolta, have invested in technologies and infrastructure advacements that have enabled them to service customers as the delivery of healthcare services changes. 

Specifically, investing in an omni-channel-capable service management system leads to a seamless and uniform customer experience whether in person or via technology (e.g., laptop, mobile phone). Regardless of device or channel, the latest infrastructure technologies provide a consistent communications journey where the conversation history and context travels with the customer—via phone, chat, email, text, or web—allowing agents to provide better, more personalized support.

Without this technology, customers may call a support desk with an urgent problem. The representative may have no visibility into the problem, thus requiring him or her to spend several minutes understanding the situation, cycling through the most typical resolutions for that product and problem description. While a connection is made with the customer, it is generally single-channel and lacks the equipment context. This limits the speed of resolution and can contribute to increased costs, impacting the customer experience.

The future customer interaction relies on an omni-channel service experience, which starts with connected devices. The power of the omni-channel experience involves service systems streamlining communications from multiple sources and using customer preferred contact methods. As the intelligence of devices and service systems increase, the best service experience will someday become one that the customer never noticed.

Data and Information to Drive Decisions

As more devices enable remote connectivity—empowering analytics automation and artificial intelligence toolsets—vendors can now gather valuable usage data from these devices to provide phenomenal insights back to their support personnel and to their customers.

After all, data should drive decision-making. Easy access to up-to-date information on asset utilization, staff performance, equipment maintenance schedules, system health, and uptime assists with maximizing productivity and helps predict and prevent costly service events. Healthcare providers should be looking to their vendors for these capabilities as value-add services, such as AeroRemote Insights from Konica Minolta, that can deliver the data needed to drive productivity, efficiency, and cost reduction. 

Extending this data access to channel partners, such as dealers, enables them to better service mutual customers. Using a simple dashboard, both partners can visualize the status of installed units at their customer sites, helping them stay on top of warranty and contract expirations, software version upgrade needs, and calibration schedules. 

In IoT, devices are getting smarter and more interconnected, generating information on use. This enables both end users and service providers to have a better understanding of equipment and staff performance as well as system or device health. 

Augmented Reality to Extend Support Capabilities

A recent star of the future of service is virtual or augmented reality wearables. Technologies, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed reality smartglasses, enable the sharing of expertise, guiding a user or service provider to perform more complex actions that may have historically required an onsite field service engineer.

With a technology such as HoloLens, a less experienced employee can share their ears and eyes with a remote expert. That expert can then use a variety of options to provide step-by-step guidance, seeing on a local display exactly what the wearer sees. Plus, the HoloLens headset will show the wearer any documents or illustrations that the expert has provided. The expert can even draw on the scene to indicate, for example, the location of a key component.  

As demonstrated by Konica Minolta at the recent annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, customers used this technology and guided holographic/extended reality technology to perform some simple maintenance on an ultrasound device. Customers found the experience to be “seamless, intuitive, and simple,” as they easily interacted with floating extended reality holograms as if it was a native transaction.   

Konica Minolta, for one, has been using the HoloLens to guide engineers through complex x-ray system installations and repairs. Shipping a HoloLens to a local individual enables the top-level expert to supervise multiple installations or repairs at once, increase productivity, and reduce costs associated with travel and downtime.

While technologies will continue to evolve, experimenting with the interaction methods is part of every successful evolution. Think about it: In 10 years, the traditional smartphone will likely be obsolete. What’s more, Bill Gates has predicted that, in two years, we will have meeting interactions with Metaverse avatars that virtually connect. Within five years, holograms and extended reality applications will become mainstream.

And from a service perspective, leveraging this interaction early and transforming the industry with the very best customer engagement technology is key.

Steven Eisner is senior manager of inside sales and service solutions at Konica Minolta Healthcare Americas, Inc., and Kevin Chlopecki is vice president of service and operations at Konica Minolta Healthcare Americas, Inc. Questions and comments can be directed to 24×7 Magazine chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected].

Featured image: A technician demonstrates how Microsoft’s HoloLens projects images.