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Can automation help rebuild confidence in healthcare providers?

By Leon Stafford, UK country manager at Digital Workforce

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Leon Stafford on automation in healthcare

Healthcare providers remain under immense pressure. While the majority of people may feel that the pandemic crisis may be receding, the aftermath is leaving a legacy of demand on hospitals, clinics and other medical services.

The pre-COVID challenges most services were facing, including aging and growing populations, limited resources, skill shortages, legacy infrastructure, to name just a few, have grown in volume and severity leaving a desparate shortage of resources.

At the same time, external stakeholders’ expectations are increasing.

In the UK, the NHS received a significant boost in funding to counter the pandemic, and while recent news suggest budgets are due to be cut, patients will expect to see commensurate improvements in service following this investment.

Opinions are fickle; the goodwill towards the NHS seen in 2020 has receded, according to recent data, with just an eight per cent gap between those thinking the NHS is performing well (48%) and those who believe it is delivering poor results (40%) in March 2022.

Finding the right medicine

None of this is particularly revelatory. For instance, sentiment in the NHS reached a low point in the mid-90s. Only a concerted investment programme was able to fix the issue, helping to convert opinions to reach an all-time high in 2010.

The problem demands more complex solutions than just throwing money at it (even if that was feasible).

What has changed between the late 90s investment and now, is the rapid adoption and acceleration of digital technologies in the broader marketplace.

When deployed effectively, organisations have been able to completely transform how themselves and their operations work. One of the key elements of this progression is the automation of certain functions and tasks.

However, whilst other industries have adopted these technologies, health in many ways continues to lag.

One reason for this is numerous regulatory restrictions, particularly around the use and sharing of data, while another is the innate caution many in the sector have when it comes to operating in new ways.

Prescribing a new course of action

As a result, we often find situations where highly qualified, skilled and in demand medical professionals spend more time performing tasks that do not require years of academic and practical study to perform.

These could be handled by non-clinical staff, who in turn could pass on repetitive jobs to automated solutions.

The UK government previously estimated that up to a third of a community-based clinician’s time (the equivalent of 88 days per working year) is spent on administration and patient coordination, while over half of doctors report that at least one hour of their work each day could be carried out by non-clinical staff.

What would happen if the administrative tasks shifted from clinician to non-clinician, and the latter’s current tasks moving from human to automation?

Looking at the statistics mentioned above, a community clinic would only need to automate three clinicians’ admin to have the equivalent of a fourth clinician available to care for patients.

Suddenly, more care can be dispensed, in whatever form the clinic decrees most beneficial to its patients, while non-clinical staff can tackle more complex problems.

Workloads can be managed more effectively, helping to improve staff engagement, morale and, in the long run, contributing to reduce the flood of workers currently leaving the health sector.

This scalable delivery function can have a a more streamlined and enhanced quality effect for human workers and patients alike.

What we can give to robots

Before we go any further, it is worth noting that this is not an exercise in reducing headcount, but in deploying it more effectively.

The key to success is to be able to identify what processes and tasks can be automated and quickly link them to Intelligent Automation (IA) capacity to free up workforce time.

For example, referrals, inpatients and outpatient bookings are areas that can be automated, with intelligent communication not only passing on the relevant information to patients but in a manner that suits them (for instance, with text messages direct to patients’ phones rather than relying on physical mail).

From a workforce perspective, creating and sharing rotas could also be automated, as well as some elements of onboarding staff and sharing employee data between different clinics and even NHS trusts.

Within clinical settings, the classification of results, sharing relevant information and even requesting tests can introduce elements of automation, with signoffs triggered and humans re-introduced at an appropriate time, when automated tasks have been completed.

Care paths can be prepopulated, allowing clinicians to tailor to specific patients rather than build from scratch, including information on current medication requirements or previous medical history.

The list goes on. The point is that much of this work is straight forward, high in volume and currently takes up time that could otherwise be deployed more valuably, whether that’s increasing the amount of care a clinician provides or simply allowing them to finish shifts on time.

Automation in action

It isn’t a pipedream, either. Pre-pandemic, a major Acute NHS Trust used to run 9,000 imaging sessions a week, across X-rays, MRIs and other scans. COVID-19 restrictions reduced the number of services the imaging department could offer and created a significant backlog in appointments.

With new requests for imagery coming in, on top of the ones they already needed to complete, the trust’s imaging team deployed RPA to speed up the appointment process and alleviate pressure on staff without impacting the service it delivers to patients.

They achieved this whilst increasing the utilisation of existing technologies rather than replacing them.

Intelligent Automation mimics human actions on the hospital’s digital appointments system and sends a link to the patient’s mobile phone so they can select their preferred imaging location, appointment date and time.

The system also considers where different medical scans can be carried out at different imaging centres, the patient’s age and the necessary time that will be required for an appointment.

As well as allowing patients to control when and where they have their appointments (and thereby reducing the risk of missed appointments), the system also means that the imaging department receives accurate information on what imaging is required.

This allows it to manage patient throughput and reduce waiting times.

Creating health services that work for everyone

The result, across the board, is a more enhanced level of service, with a shorter gap between referral and imaging, contributing to more opportunities to identify patient illness and implement a care plan sooner, increasing patient safety through a more efficient process.

This Intelligent Automation deployment is just one of many good examples of how using automation to improve administrative processes can contribute to a better overall care service.

With so many processes still to be automated, there is significant potential for a healthcare provider like the NHS to free up valuable employee time, redeploy resources effectively and deliver exceptional care, all within the constraints of the post-pandemic landscape.

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  1. Pingback: Rethinking the architecture of health IT to unlock potential

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