In this indepth interview we explore the impact software robots are having, and could have, on UK health services
There are logistical nightmares facing the NHS as healthcare rights itself after the latest peak in the COVID-19 pandemic.
And recently, Professor Marcel Levi, chief executive of the University College London Hospitals Trust, said it could take ‘a very long time’ to clear the backlog of routine surgery and procedures which has built up because of cancellations during the pandemic.
But accelerating the healthcare system’s return to normal, and treating patients whose care has been put on hold, can be aided with automation.
Software robots, for example, can automate computer-based processes such as replenishing inventory, managing patient bookings, and digitising patient files.
This creates a fast, efficient digital workforce that augments the work of healthcare professionals and drastically reduces time spent on administrative manual tasks.
Every department spends a lot of time on repetitive administrative tasks which could benefit from this approach
This approach can be seen at Mater Hospital in Dublin, which has used software robots to great effect during the pandemic, saving its infection control department three hours per day, 18 hours per week, and 936 hours a year, while also eliminating human error and allowing nurses time to be with patients.
Among other tasks, the technology, from UiPath, is helping to analyse COVID-19 tests to determine whether there is a pattern to which patients contract the infection while in hospital.
Of 4,001 tests taken, 3,887 were processed in house and 524 positive results were recorded.
Jincy Jerry, the hospital’s assistant director of nursing infection prevention and control, said: “Healthcare-associated COVID is a challenge, and we want to analyse the data. “We can look at whether patients were transferred, which other patients and staff they had contact with, and whether they were in ICU. “We have saved a substantial amount of time by collecting this data and our infection prevention teams have utilised the time saved through using this robot for more-essential services such as PPE training.” The robot also helps to extract data about other infections, such as MRSA.
Every worker is a valuable asset so once the burden of these tasks can be lifted the department could use existing resources in innovative ways“The potential applications for this robot are endless,” said Jerry. “Every department spends a lot of time on repetitive administrative tasks which could benefit from this approach, for example nurse practitioners, medical records, waiting lists, outpatient appointments, finance, procurement, the list goes on. “Every worker is a valuable asset so once the burden of these tasks can be lifted the department could use existing resources in innovative ways to decrease infections and the associated length of stay, improve worker engagement, reduce staff turnover, and reduce human error.”
UiPath is helping Mater Hospital in Dublin to digitise many of its most-time-consuming functions
BBH editor, Jo Makosinski, finds out more about the potential for this technology, by speaking to Gavin Mee, managing director of Northern Europe at UiPath.
Q: What are the key challenges facing the post-pandemic NHS?
A: Throughout the pandemic, routine surgeries and procedures were postponed to relieve pressure on the healthcare system.
Now, the NHS face a hospital waiting list 5.45 million people long, the highest since records began in 2007.
The worry remains that if this is not dealt with quickly and effectively that the backlog is likely to only worsen, with the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicting the problem could be three times as worse by next autumn.
More resource is needed to deal with the crisis, yet the number of NHS vacancies continues to cause further concern, with nursing vacancies experiencing a significant spike in the last few months.
That is why we view automation as one of the solutions that could help alleviate the crisis and bring more support to healthcare professionals when dealing with the current challenges.
While software robots can’t emulate the skills and ingenuity of healthcare professionals, the technology can work as an extra pair of digital hands to help with time-consuming administrative work so that healthcare professionals can focus on what really matters; looking after patients and their care.
Q: How have software robots evolved in recent years and what is their current traction in the UK healthcare sector?
A: In recent years, in part driven by COVID-19, there has been an increased desire from organisations around the world to automate more and more processes.
And, in order to reach these processes, the technology has become smarter and more agile.
Therefore, increasingly, additional technologies are being integrated into software robots, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to widen their capabilities.
The use of automation in healthcare was prominent before COVID-19. However, this has certainly accelerated since March 2020.
In all corners of the world, from healthcare providers in China and Norway, and in organisations closer to home such as the NHS Shared Business Service, we are seeing automation being deployed across the sector.
However, as many providers are still in the early stages of their journeys after having realised the benefits during the pandemic, I expect to see the reach of automation in UK healthcare grow over the coming years as it continues to prove its worth.
Q: How did the Mater Hospital project come about and can you tell us a bit more about it?
A: While the need for automation at Mater Hospital in Dublin certainly predated the pandemic, COVID-19 placed an increased administrative strain on the Infection Prevention and Control department (IPC) and consequently turned the team’s attention to how software robots could help.
If a task is rule-based and repetitive, the chances are that a software robot can help by emulating human actions
With more tests to be logged and reported on, and more patients to look after, the department was under extreme pressure and consequently it deployed its first software robot in March 2020 to help lighten the load, allowing nurses to spend more time looking after their patients and less time on manual, repetitive administrative tasks.
Q: How are they using the robots and what are the outcomes?
A: In the IPC at Mater Hospital, software robots report on COVID-19 test results.
The process of reporting on results was first created during the 2003 SARS outbreak and it required a clinician to log into the laboratory system, extract a disease code, and then manually enter the results into a data platform.
This took up to three hours of a nurse’s day to complete — precious time that could be spent looking after patients.
Now, a UiPath software robot does it for them, processing the data and logging it in minutes.
This saves nurses in the department around 18 hours of time a week, and up to 936 hours over the course of a year.
As we take lessons learned from the pandemic, the IPC plans to continue using the robots to manage data around drug-resistant microbes such as MRSA.
Q: Can you explain a bit about how the software robots work?
A: You can think of software robots as digital assistants, there to help carry the load of repetitive and data-intensive tasks.
Powered by Robotic Process Automation (RPA), software robots can control a computer as a human would – only virtually.
Once taught what to do, they can read and understand what’s on the screen, copy and paste, enter data into databases, update records, and save files.
As many providers are still in the early stages of their journeys after having realised the benefits during the pandemic, I expect to see the reach of automation in UK healthcare grow over the coming years as it continues to prove its worth
In short, if a task is rule-based and repetitive, the chances are that a software robot can help by emulating human actions.
Q: How do you see this being embedded in the UK health sector moving forwards?
A: Now, as the NHS stands face-to-face with a huge backlog of routine surgeries and procedures, software robots can continue to lend a helping hand.
Robots that were once processing registrations at COVID test sites, for example, could now be taught how to schedule procedures or even manage recruitment to help streamline processes associated with the backlog.
As many organisations acquired the skills needed to deploy software robots during the pandemic, it will be easier for them to build more robots going forward, allowing them to respond to new business priorities and challenges.
And, for those that haven’t, the inevitable increased administrative load that will come with sorting through the backlog provides the perfect opportunity to deploy software robots for the first time to help.
However, while automation can help in a crisis, the technology also has the power to solve systemic problems facing healthcare providers year-round.
While healthcare is highly regulated and data-intensive work, at its heart remains human ingenuity, empathy, and skill.
While software robots can’t emulate the skills and ingenuity of healthcare professionals, the technology can work as an extra pair of digital hands to help with time-consuming administrative work
If hospital managers can hand the endless repetitive work that can preoccupy healthcare professionals to software robots, then more time and energy can be spent focusing on staff management and patient needs and care.
Ultimately, this will improve the experience for the carer, the patient and the efficiency and efficacy of healthcare organisations as a whole.
Q: What are the key challenges to widespread adoption and what is your advice to address this so more trusts are able to take advantage?
A: As with any new technology promising to revolutionise the way we work, organisations starting out on an automation journey may see some resistance or hesitance from employees at first – after all, we tend to fear what we don’t know.
Education is therefore a key component to any automation initiative. Employees should understand how the technology will benefit both the trust in general, but also their own personal day-to-day working lives.
By understanding that the technology is not here to take their jobs, but rather to take away the repetitive admin that can clog up their day allowing more time to be spent with patients, software robots are more likely to be welcomed as digital assistants rather than technology that can replace a human worker.
It is with this education that trusts can get the most out of the technology and find more time in the day to do the work that really counts.