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Why isn’t RPA being more aggressively used by NHS?

As the NHS faces extreme COVID winter pressures, why isn’t RPA being more aggressively used? Historic suspicion of new systems in the UK’s public health system may be hampering adoption of potentially helpful automation.

In August, James Devine, programme director for acute care at something called the NHS Confederation, a membership body for organisations that commission and provide National Health Service services, warned that, “In the face of rising pressures on all parts of the NHS, this is the time for all parts of the system to come together to find solutions… Only by taking a system approach to risk management will we be able to avoid organisational intervention for what are system-wide issues that need tackling.”

What those rising pressures look like: ahead of what is expected to be one of the worst winters on record and in the time of a global pandemic, the NHS in England is short of around 50,000 doctors, according to the country’s doctor’s union; there’s talk of a new unofficial and unprecedented emergency intra-hospital scheme to ferry patients round emergency rooms if there’s a ‘surge’ in one area; there is open talk of the NHS being overwhelmed this year.

‘The NHS already has the data it needs’

For sure, Boris Johnson’s Brexit government says it is pumping money into the creaking UK health service to get it through—an extra £12 billion for each year between 2022−23 and 2024−25—but critics say it just isn’t enough. Some commentators are asking, at this time of deep crisis, should greater use of technology, especially Robotic Process Automation or Machine Learning, be being used to try and find efficiencies?

For Pete Wilson, public sector industry architect at US business process management software company Pegasystems, the answer has to be ‘yes’. “The NHS’s capacity to serve patients is finite and massively stretched, but its data and systems are fragmented, and precious time is wasted,” he told us. “This creates a tremendous opportunity for the NHS to leverage two modern technologies: firstly, AI or intelligent automation that can marshal all of the data available to prioritise and triage backlogs. The NHS already has the data it needs; it just needs to apply intelligence and automation to make it happen. The service needs more doctors and nurses, but AI can make a valuable contribution.”

Another automation company, Kryon, agrees: its CEO, Harel Tayeb, notes, “Anything that can be done to make the healthcare sector’s business processes more efficient deserves exploration. A holistic approach to RPA implementation will maximise ROI, from identifying and optimising the processes that need automating through to implementation and measuring impact. Taking this route will mean significant improvements in NHS efficiency, error reduction and patient satisfaction.”

At this stage, any IT helps

It’s hard to see how any greater use of any kind technology couldn’t help the NHS, to be honest. Completely outside of smart systems, Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust last year replaced 36,000 paper forms with e-forms, bringing annual savings including estimated cost savings of £200,000, an extra 27,000 staff working hours in reduced travel and administration, and capacity for an additional 18,000 outpatient visits per annum. And even outside the NHS, other healthcare organisations report benefits from RPA, like the British Red Cross, whose Technology Innovation and Futures Lead, Ben Holt, told RockingRobots.com that a bot pilot that checks invoices from key suppliers against records and prepares them for payment had shown so much promise “a specialist RPA team is being set up to see how we can use the technology across other parts of the organisation.”

So, what’s holding the organisation back? Many observers of how the NHS works with tech think it’s down to what Kryon’s Tayeb calls “entrenched organisational processes in place”.  But change may finally be on the way, albeit very tentative. A major purchasing framework has opened for buying £250m worth of intelligent automation, for example, while Simon Perks, Head of Robotics and AI at a company called Agilisys, which specialises in UK government digital transformation, says it is seeing an increased interest in chatbots from NHS teams to manage inbound demand and that it expect this to accelerate further throughout the year.

“This will also be supported by an increase in more complex RPA-led solutions to manage appointment handling and the volume of patient inquiries” he claims. A small start, for sure: but maybe the NHS has to start small to make any progress at all?

Image: iStock