Industry voice: There is a strong case for the selective use of robotic process automation in health and social care, writes Leo Tsuneda, director of health at Blue Prism
Robotic process automation (RPA) is going to be a good thing for health and social care. While many people agonise over whether robots will take over jobs, they are in fact going to be crucial to the future provision of high quality care.
It comes down to the more efficient use of resources. In all OECD countries, with the exception of Estonia, the average annual growth in healthcare spending is exceeding that of GDP, threatening to take the financial pressures to an unsustainable level.
Increasing automation can significantly reduce the pressure, cutting the cost of administrative and data entry processes that are crucial to good care while giving skilled staff more time for the work that makes a difference to its quality.
But it is not a straightforward equation and requires a measured approach in the deployment of RPA. Organisations have to make sure that they choose the right processes for automation, as RPA is more successful when it is applied selectively.
The best return on investment (RoI) from automation is in those processes that are currently completed manually or where a lot of information is held in silos. Indeed, many manual processes in health and social care could be automated - such as follow-ups and e-referrals - at zero risk to patient care whilst significantly improving processing times.
In an ideal world, redesigning flawed processes and systems would be an ideal option, but in the real world we often don’t have the luxury of time, resource or money to do so. It is much faster to automate an existing process so that it completes almost instantly - regardless of the underlying process trail - than it is to redesign and rebuild.
This helps most organisations achieving an immediate time to value improvement, demonstrating the effectiveness of the investment and achieving a swift RoI.
In a sector as complex as health and care, and where communication between the two sectors is proving ever more vital, RPA can provide improvements in many processes, especially those that are repetitive, and rules based. Rather than waiting for the budget and time to redesign processes, organisations should look at which processes they can automate today and assess those likely to bring the best return on such an investment.
It can provide immediate improvements, reducing the pressures on staff and freeing them to spend more time on the work where their skills really count – and easing the financial burden on health and care services.
Even when the ultimate goal is to redesign systems, RPA can provide immediate improvements and efficiencies. This is a variation on a rising trend in the digital transformation of public services, in which iterative developments often provide the best way forward, reducing risk and providing the scope to make corrections and improvements on the way.
Blue Prism - the most prominent supplier of RPA solutions to the National Health Service (NHS) - and its partners have identified the processes for which the technology has greatest potential. They include referrals, appointment bookings, handling requests for patient histories, passing on test results, the allocation of beds to patients, archiving feedback notes and the transfer of patient records and information to other organisations involved in the person's care - for example, between hospital and GP or social services.
While most of patient discharges from hospital are administrative functions, they include crucial steps in the delivery of care. One example is in the automation of the discharge process for hospital patients, identifying those who need follow-up social care and alerting the relevant authority. It involves pulling together a range of information, a process that is currently done manually in most organisations, but which can be automated with the right data flows in place.
This can take in the processing of clinical data, identifying what is normal or abnormal and sending the appropriate messages to clinicians and patients with any necessary guidance on next steps.
Robotics has been applied to this process by Helsinki University Hospital in Finland, relieving doctors of more than 90% of the process and, in a city of 1 million people, saving 10 full time employee days per year. It has also speeded up the process and improved patient safety as the rules built into the automation ensure that the patient becomes aware of the need for any further tests.
This approach can also extend to supporting new technologies. There is already a case in Sweden of RPA being used with a platform to monitor up to 80,000 e-health alarms, reacting to any alerts by notifying the relevant healthcare professionals and triggering the appropriate responses. It can be applied to the management of a wide range of telemedicine and assistive technologies to support people in their own homes.
There is also an impressive use case in Finland for RPA in social care, where the city of Espoo has deployed the technology to support rosta planning, the estimating and ordering of staff support from temporary employee agencies, the creation of service vouchers and handing of financial applications.
The common factor underpinning these is a strong business case for RPA. Robots can monitor a wider range of data than people, work more quickly and accurately, and are able to work on a 24/7 basis. This provides for a big increase in organisational productivity, saves on paying staff for the routine tasks and leaves more resource for the actual delivery of care.
All this highlights a potential that cannot be ignored. The pressures on the health and social care sectors in the UK are increasing inexorably, and RPA can provide large savings in some areas while speeding up and strengthening many processes.
It is set to become an important element in the future of care.
Blue Prism pioneered robotic process automation (RPA), emerging as the trusted and secure intelligent automation choice for the Fortune 500 and public sector market. Blue Prism’s connected-RPA supported by the Digital Exchange (DX) app store marries internal entrepreneurship with the power of crowdsourced innovation.
You can also visit the UKAuthority Health & Social Care event hub to watch the Blue Prism interviews, presentations with Digital Workforce and Enovation, and download the presentation slides on how intelligent automation is being utilised in health and social care.
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