An RPA programme in Suffolk and North East Essex will give health and care workers the time to make the most of their expertise, writes Richard Boddington, head of local government and housing at Blue Prism
There is a problem within the public sector of its professionals finding their efforts diluted by the time they have to spend on administrative tasks. There are estimates of over 14 million hours per year of social worker time is being taken up in administration, which gives them less scope to apply their professional skills and sharply reduces the value to the public.
This fault is ingrained with the reliance on legacy systems and infrastructure, creating a structural challenge in efforts to raise the quality and strengthen the integration of health and social care. The more time professionals spend on admin, the less they can spend working together to build integrated care systems.
Automation can do a lot to overcome this challenge. Many organisations have already recognised its role in providing major efficiencies, but it provides a larger value when freeing professionals of admin tasks and giving them more time to spend in putting their expertise to good use. This is where it develops into a strategic asset, part of the DNA in designing new services.
An example is emerging in the Suffolk and North East Essex (SNEE) Integrated Care System, which brings together the two county councils and a number of NHS organisations to co-ordinate their efforts to improve residents’ health and wellbeing.
It has identified key strategic areas in which it needs to co-ordinate efforts – workforce, finances, estates and digital – and includes a programme for the deployment of robotic process automation (RPA) in all of these.
Jon Cameron, assistant director IT at the East Suffolk and North East Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT), told the recent UKAuthority Digital Health and Social Care conference that the SNEE RPA programme involves two acute trusts, three clinical commissioning groups, two mental health trusts, an ambulance service, the two county councils and a social enterprise for community healthcare. ESNEFT, West Suffolk Hospital and Suffolk County Council already have a mature RPA capability, while some of the others have software for lower level automation.
SNEE has obtained Health System Led Investment funding for two new Blue Prism software-as-a-service environments along with resources for project management, automation development, business analysis, RPA training and an apprenticeship scheme. This is providing the resource for a programme that should provide a great asset for all of the partners.
The scheme is in its early days, but a roadmap has been developed for the first year. Its milestones including early adopters going live in the second quarter, getting the first automations in place and drafting delivery and workforce models in the third quarter, and reviewing the programme and planning for year two adopters in the fourth quarter.
“We want to ensure that all automations are up to a common standard with programme branding available to all SNEE partners, then to add these to any vendor marketplaces so they can be shared outside of our region,” Cameron said.
Richard Small, intelligent automation lead at Suffolk County Council, added his voice to the story, identifying the challenges for the SNEE RPA programme.
“A big part is how we enable all the partners to come along with us,” he said. “We want to progress this as a group without anyone being left behind.”
One element of this is in co-ordinating workstreams between several organisations that could be moving at their own pace with different funding models in place. He made the point that NHS funding often requires the money is spent within a financial year, while local authorities could be able to plan years ahead but third sector bodies are often unsure of their funding over a period of months. This can make it difficult to ensure they deploy the technology to a similar timescale.
There is also a need to develop information governance models, along with protocols for data sharing and protection, that can be applied by all of the organisations. This could hit difficulties from differences in their practices and cultures, but Small said it is possible to overcome these.
Another challenge is in prioritising projects among organisations. “We need to prioritise the pieces of work that are going to make the most difference to their journey,” he said. “So how do we identify those, find the bits of the journey where they have to repeat themselves.” Being able to quantify any benefits could be a big step in dealing with this.
But he also identified the programme’s potential benefits in two categories. At a strategic level it can encourage the sharing of ideas to help the partners focus on what matters to them and optimise their deployments.
On the operational front – which he said can be more dependent on partners using the same platform – the programme can provide for resource sharing, professional development and the reusability of automations between organisations.
The underlying aim of the programme goes back to a core purpose of automation – to reduce the administrative burden on professional staff and give them more time for the tasks in which their expertise is so valuable. This is crucial for the future of health and social care, and initiatives such as the SNEE programme are going to be highly important in supporting integrated care systems that are effective and sustainable over the long term.
It is an example of automation preventing the dilution of professionalism.
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Image from iStock, Putilich