Allina Health has a sizable challenge, and it’s not one that you’d necessarily expect. It’s a paper issue. That’s right: paper. All those seemingly innocuous medical records (required to be saved for up to 18 years) add up to one enormous dilemma for major health care organizations like Allina. Transitioning out of being a largely paper-based system means a mountain of ongoing cost as well as frustration from patients who would prefer, for example, to have access to their medical records electronically. While many other industries have marched ahead and gone paperless, the health care system has been slow to change.
According to the Consumers Union, total wasted spending in health care is approximately $765 billion. Of that, $190 billion—nearly 25 percent—is identified as excess administrative costs, which would include paper-related expenses. A technology shift needs to happen in order to eliminate the dependence on paper.
Enter Aisha Hassan, a U of M student whose major is Health Services Management. Hassan is completing a summer internship with Allina, and guess what big, fat project she’s undertaking. That's right: the paper problem. Internships these days are not for the fainthearted.
But Hassan speaks with clarity and confidence when it comes to her work at Allina. With her special interest in health informatics, she’s interning in a business analyst role, and she’s eager to put what she’s learning in her bachelor’s of applied science degree in health services management to work on the job. In other words, technology and analytics don’t scare her.
“I’m looking through all the different documentation that Allina has, organizing it and figuring out what kind of processes they can automate in order to cut down on all of the paper, thereby cutting down on all of the manpower that goes into dealing with that paperwork. It’s a quality thing,” Hassan says. “And it’s a lot of work.”
She continues: “A lot of people think health systems are all paperless, but there is so much paper being wasted. There are two full-time shifts of staff just to deal with the paperwork that comes in from the hospitals and clinics.”
“I like the fact that health care is so dynamic. It’s just a really interesting field, and it all comes back to helping people.”
Hassan is based at Allina’s headquarters in Minneapolis, which receives paper forms from the organization’s 13 hospitals and 90 clinics throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. “I’m still getting my bearings on record storage,” she says. “But I know I can use what I’ve learned in my HSM informatics classes—tools for capturing information, seeking information, and using it.”
While her internship spans only two and a half months, she is tackling her project head-on. As a business analyst intern, Hassan reports to her manager at Allina, and she also has the support of a mentor there. In addition to these resources, she can pose questions to her instructors in her HSM internship course, which she is taking simultaneously with the internship.
“So far I’ve learned that information utilization is really crucial,” Hassan says. “There’s so much data but they really haven’t gotten around to learning how to use it.”
What the Future Holds
Hassan scrolls through photos on her smartphone and finds one of a warehouse-like space that’s stacked with reams of paper in boxes, filling the room like dense bricks.
“Basically, the paper that comes here ends up in those boxes,” she explains. “They have over a million unique records right now. They have to pay for the space, the employees who have to sort it out, the destruction costs... it’s a lot.”
It’s challenges like these that HSM students will be up against once they graduate. But thanks to the program’s leadership from instructors who are aware of health care industry issues, students will not be surprised by the work that needs to be done. They’ll roll up their sleeves and apply what they know, just as Hassan is doing in her internship.
“Right now it seems like there’s a lot of transition and change happening in health care,” Hassan says. “Health Services Management is all about the back end of health care—the side that people rarely get to see.”
It’s that side of health care that really excites Hassan, who understands the power that data holds in improving health care systems. When it comes to the paper problem, she hopes to recommend better ways to advance and make use of the data that’s locked inside reams of paper in a big warehouse space. She knows there’s a better, more efficient way to make the system work. Her internship as a health informatics business analyst with Allina is just the beginning of her career in health services management.
Of the HSM major, Hassan says she appreciates the flexibility and coursework. Her plan after she graduates is to pursue a Master of Health Informatics graduate degree at the U of M. Half of her credits are already complete, thanks to the coursework crossover from her undergraduate degree.
“I like the fact that health care is so dynamic,” Hassan says. “It’s just a really interesting field, and it all comes back to helping people.”