Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Labor Redundancy: Health Care Survey

I go in to the Cornell health facility most every week to get an allergy shot. They have made some changes recently to streamline the process for me: I can now check myself in using my staff ID card and today I was even invited to make my own appointments online. Why would they do this? Economics, my dear Watson! It reduces their labor costs and gets the less-routine patients to a receptionist faster.

I sauntered over to one of the receptionists during a lull: they've known me for years now and everyone thinks Econotoddler is cute as can be when I bring him with me, so I'm on good relations with the staff. I introduced the subject to her and then said, "Y'see, I'm an economist so I wonder about these kinds of questions: are you worried about your job becoming redundant?" On seeing the surprise on her face - she probably doesn't get that question every day - I realized I might just as well have said, "I'm an economist so I have no social skills" but then I'd be worried about reverse causality (I may be an economist because I have no social skills). Of course, having observed me pacing the reception area reading various papers and books, she probably knew that already.

Recovering, however, she was happy to defend her noble profession. It's one thing to streamline the routine care for patients who come in every week and know what to expect. College students, she explained, are a naive group who generally don't understand the difference between urgent and routine care, how long wait times are off campus, they haven't been making their own health care decisions, and some even think that acne is something you need to see the doctor about. Part of her job is educating the undergrads about the health care system, what constitutes urgent care, and how grateful they should be that Cornell gets to their complaints with the promptness it does. And Gannett is quite prompt.

I thanked her sincerely for helping me understand the system a little better.

Yes, the facts of that information could be provided by a computer screen, but people wouldn't read it. It is more effectively and efficiently communicated one on one as individual health care issues develop. But now I'm imagining self-check-in kiosks at my doctors' offices where education is not a primary function, and a slightly sophisticated online program that screens available appointments based on urgency..... I think this would be a beautiful thing at our allergist's office where the receptionists do not take kindly to the Econotoddler and a sad thing at our GP's where the doctor is too streamlined and doesn't remember us from one visit to the next. It's nice to have a friendly face to chat with.


  1. From a service management standpoint, we would say that your asking the question "will self service technology take over services as we know them?" You came to the same conclusion that most academics studying self service technology find - that the human element adds value and is probably not going away soon.

    Self service technology is best suited for mundane tasks that don't afford a lot of personal interaction or customization (e.g., ATM withdrawals, scheduling appointments). On the other hand, when some patients need to be told that acne is not fatal and others need to be rushed because there is blood squirting out of their head, you will need a human.

  2. Oh good. I was rather hoping you would see this.

    Airline self-check-in hasn't worked too well for me in the past though. It ought to be mundane and simple. I still always need an attendant, but since they put in the kiosks there are fewer of them and the line grinds to a halt as three customers are waiting on one person to weigh their bags and give out everything and so forth.