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Peter Walker, CTO EMEA at Blue Prism, discusses how intelligent automation is being used by the NHS to streamline operations and improve patient outcomes, particularly in light of the COVID-19 crisis

With current events creating a huge surge in operational demand across global public healthcare organisations, the need for accelerated ‘operational agility’ has never been greater. In the UK, over 20% of NHS Trusts are meeting some of this demand with intelligent automation solutions that operate in harmony with NHS staff, to automate, streamline, expand and accelerate all types of tasks.

Intelligent automation runs a digital workforce, an AI-enabled processing resource that’s getting ever-closer to a human worker, by learning from and operating like them. Digital workforces are being trained and put to work by NHS staff to perform any process activity by interoperating across all disparate IT systems, with total integrity and up to 150 times faster – with zero errors, 24×7.

Digital workers combatting COVID-19

The injection of digital workers into the NHS resource pool allows a wide range of activities to be automated at unprecedented speed across multiple functions – to overcome a huge range of recent challenges and to release more time to care for frontline NHS staff. Here are some examples of work being performed by Blue Prism’s digital workers as part of this effort:

  • Respiratory data sharing that supports the identifying of cases and moving of data across London.
  • Connecting patient administration systems across health systems to improve access to psychological therapies.
  • Automating administrative tasks across the back office to ensure hospitals can offer the most efficient care possible.
  • Adapting to an overwhelming rise in requests for eConsultations across a regional general practice partnership that serves hundreds of thousands of citizens. By automating a new GP appointment booking process, the practice has reduced the risk of COVID-19 transmission and maintained a safe environment for all patients and staff associated with the practice.
  • Collecting and uploading data to update a central COVID-19 tracking dashboard across UK prisons to help healthcare workers monitor and administer patients in the prison system.
  • Providing a complex automation to give 800 care homes access to NHS Mail, to accelerate patient referrals from care homes into hospitals.
  • Accelerating the onboarding of NHS staff through automating the complex process of creating new starter accounts and attributing staff to the relevant roles.

Crucially, staff are being liberated to do more of the things that are aligned to their innate strengths. And there’s almost no fear of the impact of automation; it’s actually seen as a major positive by NHS staff. In fact, one screening midwife burst into tears of joy after a digital worker took over one of her most disliked, time-consuming admin activities.

NHS Trusts at the forefront of innovation

This demand surge continues, with Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay, North East London Commissioning Support Unit, Great Western Hospitals and Leeds Teaching Hospitals and Care Quality Commission, all recent onboarding our digital workers. Not only will this assist in fighting the ongoing crisis, but importantly it will provide the foundation for delivering sustainable long-term transformation that accelerates the delivery of better patient outcomes.

For example, University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay are employing digital workers to help patients book, prepare for and follow up on appointments – to ensure everyone receives a wealth of tailored communications, confirming each step of their treatment. With 600,000 hospital appointments booked a year, there is no way staff could proactively manage that level of personalised communication manually. For medical staff too, they see countless opportunities for removing the daily burden of updating patient record systems so that they can dedicate their time to providing frontline patient care.

These NHS Trusts join a community of healthcare organisations who are sharing their tried and tested automations using a dedicated NHS Digital Exchange (DX), that allows NHS teams to further accelerate the deployment of new automations. A library of pre-built automation assets that cover more than 40 processes tackling enhanced access to services, and patient communication from admissions through to outpatient support are being made available.

Automations enabling key back-office support for recruitment, HR onboarding and finance processing are also on hand through the NHS DX. In just 18 months, the platform has delivered more than 36,000 hours of human work back to the organisation – whether that’s more coherent and faster patient care, more capacity and breathing space for over-stretched frontline staff or reduced costs.

Without the need for each Trust to start designing and building automations from scratch, teams can expand the impact of their digital workforce faster than ever. As each Trust contributes new automation assets into the fast-growing library, the benefit of this is multiplied across the country and can be seen delivering optimal results on public sector investment.

The future of automation in healthcare 

The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) estimates that automation could save the NHS £12.5 billion per year. From GP referrals to the re-assigning of cancelled appointments, to reducing Did Not Attend rates, to enhancing HR and finance processes, there are almost unlimited resource-draining services that can be automated and optimised.

Key enabling technologies like intelligent automation are increasingly being used collaboratively across the NHS to solve a wide range of challenges. They are generating an array of new patient care opportunities and will continue to remove backlogs much faster, while reducing clinical risk and liberating NHS human and financial resources to do more, at this crucial time for the country’s healthcare.


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