Nursing healthcare back to health with software robots



Gavin Mee, Managing Director Northern Europe at UiPath, explains how software robots were used during the pandemic and how they could help healthcare providers get back on their feet


Despite huge investment over the last year, it’s apparent that global healthcare systems are facing yet another crisis in the wake of the pandemic. Providers are confronted with backlogs, exhausted staff, and strained resources. In the UK alone, 5 million people are waiting for treatment, and it’s estimated that this could cause 6,400 excess deaths by the end of next year if the problem isn’t rectified. It’s safe to say that healthcare needs nursing back to health. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple solution; it will require a huge collaborative effort to overcome the challenges facing the system. While automation certainly isn’t a silver bullet, it may be a significant way to ease the strain on the industry. 

What are software robots and automation?

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a technology that uses software robots to emulate human actions to complete repetitive and data-intensive tasks just as a human would. In healthcare, such tasks could include managing inventories, processing patient data and scheduling appointments, for example. 

The software robots can take control of a screen, mouse and keyboard and read, extract and process data as necessary. The technology is already being used around the world to reduce administrative, often manual work that takes hours per day to complete. RPA frees up employee time to focus on value-added work that requires creativity, human ingenuity, and strategic thinking. 

Gavin Mee

The bots can process data in a fraction of the time and often more accurately than their human colleagues. Additionally, they can work across departments, making it easier for data to pass securely through the often complicated infrastructure of healthcare providers. This all works together to improve the efficiency of care pathways, all while boosting the patient and employee experience.

Critically, with sophisticated RPA platforms, healthcare organisations have the power to govern their automation deployments for oversight and control without intrusion and undue restrictions. This allows for centralised control by IT, but policies can be tailored to individual needs or for groups of people with different levels of automation skills or access.

Many healthcare providers had already tapped into automation’s potential before the pandemic. However, COVID-19 its adoption has certainly accelerated. The technology has proved particularly attractive as it is a great tool to increase direct patient care without increasing costs and supplementing existing staff when labour shortages occur. 

During the pandemic, software robots have been trusted with tasks such as processing COVID-19 test results, registering patients at testing sites, and managing procurement and inventory of medical supplies. These efforts save healthcare providers time and money, and increase employee engagement and productivity.

How robots came to the rescue during the pandemic 

The outbreak of COVID-19 forced healthcare providers to adapt — fast. Nightingale hospitals were established, a huge recruitment effort ensued, and vast amounts of PPE had to be procured. When healthcare professionals had to find more time in their day to tend to their increased number of patients, robots were there to help. 

In the Mater Hospital in Dublin, for example, software robots were deployed in the Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) department to take over the of reporting COVID-19 test results. Before automating this task, this required a clinician logging into the laboratory system, extracting a disease code, and then manually entering the results into a data platform. By handing this task to software robots, IPC nurses saved three hours of admin per day, 18 hours per week and 936 hours a year, while also eliminating human error and allowing the nurses to be with patients.

Elsewhere, software robots relieved COVID pressures in other ways. In the US, they registered patients at drive-in testing sites and ensured test kits were correctly labelled for collection and reporting. In the procurement department of one large Canadian hospital, software robots were deployed to balance orders of key supplies and inventories in real time, relieving the stress on procurement staff and ensuring supplies were ordered promptly and delivered to the correct hospital storerooms. 

These efforts reduced the pressure on healthcare providers, saving time and resources and most importantly allowing professionals to be on the front line, fighting the virus. With the benefits crystallised for healthcare leaders, the technology is being adopted more widely to relieve other pressures now facing the healthcare organisations. 

How automation will help in the future 

Many providers have gained the necessary knowledge and skills required to deploy automations during the pandemic. 

Software robots can now manage patient bookings or digitise patient files and streamline operations associated with clearing the backlog. According to an estimate by BMA, between April 2020 and March 2021, there were 3.37 million fewer elective procedures and 21.4 million fewer outpatient attendances. 

However, automation shouldn’t just be seen as a tactical response to issues. Rather, it should be viewed as a long-term strategic program to help healthcare organisations accelerate modernisation and digitisation. 

Staffing shortages, budgetary concerns, and a simple lack of time are problems much of the industry faced before the pandemic and will likely intensify even when the current backlog is overcome. Introducing software robots into the very fabric of these organisations could address key operational issues. 

To give an example, NHS Shared Business Service (SBS), which provides non-clinical services to around two-thirds of all NHS provider trusts and every clinical commissioning organisation in the UK, is already in the process of deploying a long-term automation strategy. It hopes to create an entire eco-system of software robots to streamline processes in its finance and accounting service and far beyond. NHS SBS believes that no automation should be looked at in isolation, but rather the technology should stretch across departments and functions. 

Instead of asking, “how can we cut waiting times at COVID-19 testing centres?”, industry leaders should consider the longer-term effects that endless paperwork and admin has on the performance of an organisation. If nurses and other staff are freed from such tasks, the standard of care could improve and the pressures on resources could be relieved. 

To read more about how RPA could help healthcare organisations operate more efficiently, download the Nursing healthcare back to health report. 

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