Workflow automation offers cost savings, but don't forget about policy enforcement and compliance

A lot can go wrong in a paper-based, manual workflow. On the surface, the inter-office mail envelope might seem harmless, but it can lead to big problems. There often is no way to track a missing form, for instance, nor an effective means to quickly resolve bottlenecks. Those innocent delays in document or form routing can produce unforeseen consequences, which may lead to noncompliance with important policies.

For example, most hospitals have a paper-based workflow surrounding the termination of employees. Typically, a form is sent to various departments to notify managers, capture signatures and ensure proper security steps are taken. Any bottleneck in this process leaves the organization vulnerable and exposed to compliance risk. If the form never makes it to IT, the employee's network and building access may not be deactivated. Even without any hold-ups in the manual process, the appropriate departments may not be notified until days later, which may lead to serious breaches in safety, protocol, privacy and confidentiality.

Ineffective workflow procedures also affect organizational integrity. Purchasing policies are put in place to prevent abuse that might lead to financial instability. Hospital employees are often well aware of the proper procedures needed for purchasing additional supplies. But if paperwork requesting such items is consistently lost, staff will be more likely to go around the system. Even if work-arounds are employed with the best intentions, they open the door for problems.

Automating hospital workflow -- and recycling that inter-office mail cart -- has many benefits. Enjoying the cost savings associated with a paper-free workplace is just one positive outcome. Automation can help the organization strictly and consistently enforce regulatory and organization-specific policies. When appropriately designed, a workflow will follow highly defined rules to route "paperwork" through the organization with speed. For example, if a purchasing requisition totals more than $5,000, the workflow will route it to purchasing only after administrative approval -- if, of course, that is the hospital's policy.

In the case of the terminated employee, this efficient system becomes even more valuable by protecting an organization from potential security breach or HIPAA noncompliance. Cases of medical identity theft have become increasingly common and disgruntled employees are charged with stealing medical records in an act of spite against their employers. By having an automated workflow in place to quickly route notifications of terminations or other concerns, this scenario can be prevented.

Imagine a world where no one can say, "I never got that request." That dream is not so far off. Any user involved in an automated workflow can see in whose "to-do" queue the request has stalled. The transparent process fosters accountability and minimizes delays. And, in many circumstances, the money saved from printing and paper supplies alone will provide immediate return on investment.

It won't matter if the mail clerk calls in sick or if your fax machine isn't working. Automated workflows will ensure that requests are securely and efficiently routed, and their pending tasks are completed on-time.

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