Future proofing the NHS: How can automation help?

James Ewing, Regional Director UK at Digital Workforce, discusses how automation can help to future proof the NHS, here

Back in April Matt Hancock put his name to a report from the Taxpayer’s Alliance looking at the benefits automation technology could provide for the NHS. The report, titled ‘Automate the State’, estimated that automation could save the NHS an estimated £12.5 billion a year by increasing staff productivity, while also claiming that the social care sector could save £5.9 billion a year through increased productivity. While these figures are obviously hugely appealing, they fail to represent the true value automation technologies could have on the NHS, its workers, and its patients.

Delivering better patient care

One of the biggest challenges faced by the NHS at the moment is the strain on its staff. A recent leak of the government’s draft NHS people plan revealed that England is currently short of around 40,000 nurses – a figure which is expected to rise to as much as 70,000 by 2023/24 without intervention. Ultimately, what these staff shortages mean is that across the NHS there are less people in place to carry out both the administrative and specialist tasks.

This is where automation technologies, such as robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) can make a huge difference. Automation is not about replacing humans with robots, but about freeing people up so that they can concentrate on the tasks that matter – enabling professionals to partake in ‘purposeful work’. With regard to the NHS, this means giving doctors and nurses more time to focus on patient care and less time performing mundane knowledge-based tasks.

A great use case for how automation can work to the benefit of a national healthcare system can be seen by looking at Finland, where Digital Workforce’s headquarters are. A recent study of nine healthcare districts in Finland found that half of the work time of the healthcare professionals surveyed was spent on computer-based knowledge tasks, and away from patient care. However, the study estimated that after implementing automation tools nurses across the 9 districts could save up to 31% of their on shift-time, while doctors could save up to 34% through not having to perform computer-based knowledge tasks. Freeing up doctors and nurses time in such a way gives them more time to focus on their specialist tasks and deliver better patient care.

Adapting resources

Automation can not only help NHS staffing by freeing up healthcare professionals time, but it can also be used to reallocate resources so that there is adequate cover for shifts in place when there are staff shortages. A recent Freedom of Information request conducted by GP publication Pulse discovered that more than a million people across the UK were left without urgent on-call GP cover on some weekends during the last year. In instances such as these automation bots can be used to reallocate staff and resources so that the most under pressure practices are covered.

Such technology has been implemented in the Finnish city of Espoo. The city’s healthcare staff were frequently having to submit temporary staffing requests for home care units when there were staff shortages – taking up more of their time. The city chose to implement a ‘digital employee’, a robotic process automation bot, to carry out the temporary staffing requests. The result of Espoo’s use of the robot was an improved quality of care for the city’s users and led to a more efficient staffing administration system.

Increasing staff satisfaction

One of the biggest prejudices against implementing automation technologies is that they are a threat to jobs and that they have been designed to replace inefficient people with artificial intelligence and robots. The reality is the best business results are achieved when people, AI and robots are used in conjunction with one another. Artificial intelligence and robots work best when used on data-intense and highly repetitive tasks, while people work better when they can focus on the innovative and specialist tasks as well as pastoral care which is especially important in the healthcare sector.

In the Finnish Espoo example, – the worker’s job satisfaction increased: The most valuable and rewarding part of their work. The robot was not perceived as a threat, but as long-awaited help in a situation where staff time was increasingly being tied up in recurring computer-based administrative tasks. At a time when the UK public’s satisfaction levels with the NHS have been gradually declining, and when NHS resources and staff have been stretched to their fullest, rolling out automation technologies, such as RPA and AI, could be the much-needed boost the NHS needs to ensure it is fit for the future.

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