There is a restaurant in Terminal A at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC that offers a unique lesson in the adaptation of new technologies. The message may be that innovation that is good for one may not be good for all. It is a tutorial that easily translates to technological changes within workers’ compensation.

I was returning from the 70thAnnual Convention of the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) last Friday. I arrived at the airport early and decided there was time for a sit-down meal. The only restaurant in the terminal once past security was a semi-automated place called Reservoir. 

There are no hostesses to greet you at this restaurant. You simply walk in and sit down at a location of your choosing. Most of the tables are configured to accommodate larger parties or individuals in a community table style setting. Each place setting has its own tablet ordering device. 

For me it was a fairly straightforward affair. The tablet allows you to peruse the menu, select your items, swipe your credit card and submit your order. It also lets you enter your flight for status updates and offers a variety of news, games and internet access to entertain you while you wait. In just a few minutes my drink was delivered. A few minutes later the meal arrived (and it was quite good).  

And while this was an opportunity for an admitted tech nerd to get his geek on, it did feel a bit odd. The person who delivered my drink did so without saying a word. The first and only time anyone spoke to me was when lunch was delivered. When it came time to leave, you simply advise the tablet you are done, and a receipt is either emailed or texted to you, depending on your preferences. The atmosphere could best be described as efficient, but impersonal. 

It was also apparent that this technology might not be best for everyone. Just after my order was submitted, a young family of five sat down at the other end of my table. The three children were very close in age, probably between 5 and 8 years old. Initially they sat with Mom and Dad on one side of the table with the three kids on the opposite side; that was until Dad realized that the three munchkins might accidentally order things on the tablets that sat before them. They then wisely realigned to put a parent on each side and split the children up. Dad then began the ordering process, trying to figure out what everybody wanted while trying to navigate the tablet menu. It was not a speedy process.

I think they were still ordering when I left.

The two takeaways from this experience are that technological solutions may not always be the best for every scenario, and that efficiency may come at the cost of personal service and human interaction. Those are two points that we should be cognizant of in workers’ comp.

Talk of technological innovations have dominated conferences and discussions within the industry in recent months. Companies are excited about telemedicine, big data, blockchain and what they believe will be improved communication through apps. While we do in fact have tremendous opportunities to improve communications and the flow of information, we must build into these systems a method to accommodate those at risk of being left behind. It is somewhat ironic that the other big topics of the last couple years, advocacy-based claim management and the biopsychosocial impact on outcomes, are at risk of being neglected by technology-based improvements in communication. If we are not careful, we risk further removing the “human touch” that can be so important to outcomes in many of these cases. 

It is something to keep in mind as we move to adopt these new ideas. Our restaurant lesson on cold efficiency is definitely food for thought in workers’ comp.

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