RPA has been building momentum in the NHS as an opportunity to cut costs and free up more time for critical, life-saving activity. To explore the opportunity, challenge and potential that RPA holds for the NHS, we brought together a number of leaders in the space to discuss.
The article below is a roundup of the salient points raised during the webinar.
Karen Gorman, Healthcare Director at Blueprism, introduced the session by defining RPA.
Robotic process automation gives an organisation a pool of scalable digital workers designed to help your teams do more and achieve more. So it’s increasing your workforce capacity by giving you digital workers that copy and emulate what your human workers do.
These robots log into the system like we do, with a username and password, without any complex integration required and they follow the same processes we ask our humans to do. So, when you’ve got a lot of time-consuming, high-volume tasks, it’s brilliant to be able to hand those over to digital workers and release your clinical or back office staff to do more direct patient care or more direct co-ordination of patient care.
A really good example of this is referrals. When you’ve got a referral that’s put into ERS, and you need your team to spend time logging into ERS, extract the referral and upload it into your EPR system. Imagine if you could just hand off that time to a digital worker. So you can release that time of the admin teams in the outpatients side to be able to then go and spend more time talking to patients or delivering care.
Obviously, the key thing with the digital workers is that they’re working at robot speed, which is pretty much eight times faster than a human. But they’re also working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there’s no bank holidays, there’s no annual leave, there’s no sick leave – they just work.
We then asked Karen to give us an idea of the potential of the technology and some of the opportunities it unlocks in the healthcare space.
There’s the short term productivity benefits of being able to release that time and support the workforce by taking over those admin tasks. But then there’s the strategic context of the transformation across an organisation. We’re having a lot of regional conversations at the moment with ICS when actually you can look at the transformation digital workers can give by long term condition pathways or within diagnostic remote diagnostic hubs, or cancer networks and actually using that strategically across the organisations.
But I think when we look at short term, appointment management is something that we use digital workers a lot for managing and tracking diagnostic tests. A good example during the pandemic was using the digital workers to do antibody testing, so being able to receive a test or order the tests on sunquest eyes, constantly monitor for the test results to come back and then then message the patient with the results.
A question that received a high amount of attention from those in attendance who may just be starting on their automation journey was answered by Karen.
Historically, when RPA first started, it felt safe to do the HR and the finance processes. But now we’re seeing that automations on clinical processes are what really drives value and supports transformation. So, our most common area is around outpatients just because of the sheer volume. You know, Claire mentioned about the referrals, when you’ve got potentially 200,000 referrals coming in, and each of them takes 10 minutes to process an extract and combine the attachments and upload. That’s massive, massive savings.
Not just savings in the form of admin time, but it means the clinicians have got that information at the point of care and everything that they need to be able to make the informed choice for the patient. So yeah, I would say outpatients is probably our common area.
Automation programmes can require input from a wide range of stakeholders. They can fundementally change the way certain people work and require high amounts of collaboration from a number of different departments. For those reasons, you shouldn’t automate for automation’s sake. We asked Claire to discuss identifying the right process for automation.
There really needs to be an emphasis on eliminating non value-add activities for process redesign before we even get started with automation.
I’ve had one pitfall in one of my digital workers that came from trying to automate a process that should’ve been eliminated instead.
if you’re not going to deliver the value, it’s not worth doing it. So let’s focus on the ones that are really going to deliver the value. Now that could be value around demand and capacity or some clinical directives. But generally, it’s around saving time and how you can release that time and refocus that workforce.
It’s about finding those top five automations that then inform the business case, and then go to start building those metrics and define what those cost savings are going to be within the business case.
It doesn’t matter how powerful the technology is, if you can’t convince the right people that the technology is going to deliver value then you likely won’t get far. Louise Wall, RPA consultant and Managing Director e18 Consulting Ltd, has extensive experience when it comes to putting together RPA business cases. We asked her to discuss what goes into a successful RPA business case.
Time is the biggest metric in the business case. We all know that the NHS is under increasing pressure, so it’s all very much about how we give that time back to the organisation. And we do look at the whole digital strategy, the organisational strategy, and actually, more importantly, the ICS strategy. So how do we build the business case that’s going to set us up for the future?
In terms of business cases, there’s three outcomes that we try to focus on. Improving patient care, giving time back for more patient facing activity and financial sustainability.
We could have the best business case out there that gives all the benefits of time back and improving patient care, but from the experience that I’ve got, the FDA still does want to see some kind of ROI, whether that’s cash releasing or cost avoidance, we had one business case recently where they were going to have to employ 40 staff to manage the vaccine process, just for a six month period. And because we put forward the automation that avoided having to employ those 40 staff, the business case paid for itself within the first six months with that one process. Anything else was just an advantage.
Each business case template is slightly different. I’d be an advocate of a one NHS business case template in the future, because I think that would make everybody’s life a bit easier. It does follow the same process, but you do have to show ROI.
The other thing that’s really important in the business cases is how this affects staff health and wellbeing. Now, that’s something I’m really passionate about. And I think sometimes it gets put to the bottom of the list. And actually, it should be one of the key factors. How can automation positively impact the rising sickness rates at the moment and help cope with the fear of burnout after a very difficult year.
Sometimes it’s just one process that gets the business case over the line. And other times you need to build up processes, maybe three or four from the different departments, and then discuss the art of the possible because it’s endless, but you need to start somewhere.
Claire, who worked in the Finance department within healthcare before moving into digital transformation, knows what it takes to work through the system to get her programmes over the line. We asked Claire how she engages c-level executives and ensures they’re fully bought into programmes.
I think the two pieces of advice that I’d give all those who want to get started and have a blank canvas, there’s something for me, and I’m really learning from others, and getting the use cases and getting the case studies that demonstrate that. This technology has proven, with the right ingredients, you can get great return on investments and benefits realisation. So I think that’s the first thing to help convince the CFO that there’s that there’s evidence there is track record that this technology, and will make efficiencies, whether it be productivity, or whether it be cash release and savings, you know, there’s this choice there.
The second thing I’d recommend that teams get started with is a very simple proof of concept without using the technology. All you want to do is find where the process savings will be, so that they can measure it upfront in terms of how many minutes saved or how many hours saved, just to get that real strong case for change. And don’t make it a financial discussion, make it a collective MDT discussion that everybody buys in, whether it be operational teams, clinical teams, or HR teams on finance together, that we all want to make this happen.
I think what I’d avoid is using RPA as a as a CIP exercise, because we all know when people at the counsellors come looking for CIPS, it never ends up in a positive conversation. And I think having RPA as a positive tool, a positive technology that actually helps reduce admin = this is where you want to get started.
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