Mar 19, 2021

Automation and COVID-19 vaccine rollouts

covid-19 vaccine
Jason Warrelmann
4 min
Automation and COVID-19 vaccine rollouts
Jason Warrelmann, Global Director of Healthcare and Life Sciences at UiPath, explains how automation can assist in complex COVID-19 vaccine rollouts...

Following the massive disruption caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, many healthcare organizations have recognized the value in automation for promoting business continuity and empowering a more thoughtful level of care. With the ability to expedite tedious, time-consuming processes, automation can streamline various healthcare operations so that providers have more valuable time to dedicate to patients. Additionally, with increased support, organizations can mitigate the risk of employee burnout—a prominent threat as healthcare workers are pushed to their limits handling emerging demands. 

Now, as the world embarks on the largest vaccine rollout in history, automation will again prove invaluable for ensuring rigorous operations in tandem with a seamless patient experience. As healthcare providers navigate rollouts, here’s how automation can alleviate some of the common challenges associated with the endeavor.

Streamlined appointment scheduling

With vaccination efforts underway, appointment scheduling has proven to be a major obstacle. While some healthcare organizations have invested in digital front-door solutions to ensure registrations are synced to patient medical records, many are relying on third-party event platforms to connect members of the public with vaccination centers. This disconnect means healthcare workers then need to complete back-end data entry, followed by clinical coordination, to register and communicate with the patients—delaying patient access to critical care. 

As a solution, automated software robots can be deployed to keep web portals and registration in sync by creating new medical record numbers (MRNs) for each patient when they register, and looking for duplicate patient profiles to avoid system confusion. Additionally, to accommodate the growing demand for outreach solutions featuring interactive voice response (IVR; e.g., to accommodate older or multi-language citizens), robots configured with chat technology can be deployed to help individuals register for the vaccine or simply learn more about it. With IVR, patients will be able to quickly and easily access the information they need when they need it, instead of waiting for an available representative.

Automation can support appointment logistics at the vaccination centers themselves as well. Most vaccination sites are designed to vaccinate 800 to 1,000 patients per day, which means staff must also complete a high volume of clerical tasks like check in, eligibility checks and account activation. Failure to execute these compliantly will impact wait time and downstream processes. To avoid errors and delays, health systems can turn to automation to streamline the end-to-end process and expedite each appointment, starting with the check in to reduce wait time and improve the quality of data collected.

Efficient data management

From patient information, to insights into vaccine availability, rollouts require healthcare workers to manage high volumes of data—and efficiency and accuracy are paramount. Unfortunately, data transparency presents a major hurdle to seamless vaccine rollouts. For example, once vaccines are administered, healthcare organizations then need to be able communicate their status to government agencies. Because many older EMR platforms still require manual intervention to update, entering this information can be highly time consuming (not to mention error-prone when executed by overworked employees). 

To cut down on time spent inputting data and ensure all necessary parties are updated properly, healthcare providers can use automation to pull data from their digital records and enter it into government web portals. In addition to increasing the speed of this task—which helps healthcare organizations meet compliance timelines—automation can also execute it with improved accuracy, thereby enabling more regulated reporting. In this manner, automation can also be used to assist with sharing occupational health vaccination updates for state employees, clinic state vaccination records for first responders and teachers, as well as vaccine batch tracing updates.

Another data processing concern related to the vaccine is reimbursement integrity. While the public will not be charged with financing the vaccine rollout, U.S. healthcare providers are able to seek reimbursement for administration costs with health insurance companies or through the CARES Act for non-insured patients. However, many are seeing an increase occurrence of claim edit 230, a rejection that commonly occurs when the submitted invoice varies from the expected diagnosis, when submitting the claim to the payer. Due to the scale of the current vaccine effort, frequent occurrence of this error can pull healthcare employees away from their roles to correct. To avoid losing staff to manually revising each claim, organizations can set up automated robots to field requests for edits, audit the forms and correct the coding mistake.

While efficient scheduling and data management have emerged as common challenges for healthcare organizations’ vaccine rollouts, other challenges are bound to arise amid such unprecedented circumstances. Fortunately, advanced automation programs can be adapted to meet organizations’ unique needs—empowering healthcare workers to address critical concerns as they arise. With automation technology taking care of the behind-the-scenes processes required for effective vaccine administration, healthcare providers can focus on the heart of their jobs: protecting patients.  

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Jun 19, 2021

Driving sustainability in medical device production

George I’ons
5 min
George I’ons, Head of Product Strategy and Insights at Owen Mumford Pharmaceutical Services on how technology is driving sustainability 

Environmental protection and stewardship are rapidly rising to the top of the corporate agenda and medical device businesses are no exception. The healthcare sectors of the United States, Australia, Canada, and England combined emit an estimated 748 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, an output greater than the carbon emissions of all but six nations worldwide. In order to curb this situation various European standards have been introduced. 

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE); Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS); Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) and the Energy Using Products (EuP) regulations have all significantly altered manufacturing processes, specific labelling, compliance with disposal restrictions, and creation of instructions for end-of-life management and recycling.

At the moment many medical devices are currently exempt from these regulations but several directives, including RoHS and WEEE, are in the process of being reviewed and could be applicable in future. This is especially relevant for devices that are ‘connected’ and have a digital monitoring component which then brings them under the regulatory purview of authorities that govern devices with electronic components.

Safety, Usability and Sustainability

While medical device manufacturers have been working to respond to increasing demand for environmental sustainability from the market, they also have to contend with a key element of their mission: to ensure safety and usability to healthcare workers and patients. Parenteral and other invasive devices are strictly regulated to help reduce the risk of Healthcare Acquired Infection which typically runs as high as 5% and 8% in most developed countries, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. As a result, they typically contain disposable single-use plastic elements.

At the same time, many hospitals and purchasing organisations have started to recognise that sustainable purchasing practices play a pivotal role in reducing costs over time. Many GPOs have appointed and empowered Senior Directors of Environmentally Preferred Sourcing who are successfully implementing the sustainable purchasing business case. In addition global pharmaceutical companies are increasingly creating senior positions with sustainability objectives as key to the role.

Medical device disposal is a particularly burning issue; generally carried out through incineration in the EU, it typically releases nitrous oxide, as well as known carcinogens including polychlorinated biphenyls, furans and dioxins. Some of the strategies trialled by manufacturers to reduce waste matter destined to incineration include sterilisation and reprocessing.

Sterilisation, however, falls short on the environmental front, and may consume more energy and produce more emissions than incineration itself. In the United States for example, 50% of all sterile medical devices are sterilised with ethylene oxide but since this method releases harmful emissions, the US Food and Drug Administration is now encouraging the development of new methods or technologies. Many other established sterilisation methods use glutaraldehyde that is not only harmful to the environment but also tends to be regulated by strict usage and disposal rules such as COSSH guidelines.

Focus on Recycling

The outlook on recycling is changing significantly thanks to new research and technologies enabling, for example, monomer extraction. Recycled polymers can be broken down to their constituent monomers promoting an almost limitless recyclability of some polymers. In addition to this, Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), renewable polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) can be recycled several times without losing critical properties.

Reducing the impact of packaging can also significantly reduce the materials that need to be dealt with through either waste or recycling. Packaging manufacturers are decreasing packaging volume by favouring sealed trays instead of pouches, laser-etching instructions directly on to the tray where regulation permits it, or reducing the number of components required overall. In addition to this, for recycling plans to be successful it important to have a full understanding of the practices surrounding device use and to establish, where possible,  closed loop recycling systems that recover the waste materials from hospitals or patients and bring them back into the recycling process.

Sustainable Manufacturing: Technology and Research

Greater employment of fast degrading plastics or material from other sources is a key strategy to reduce harmful pollutants both at production and disposal stage. Bio-based materials can in fact offset the carbon emitted during processing as the monomer source grows, and a growing range of sources for bio based monomers -such as wood pulp or sugar cane- is available. However, when assessing the most suitable material for a part, the entire lifecycle of the product needs to be considered. For example: bio-degradable polymers can contaminate a recycling stream and emit methane when incinerated.

The use of environmentally friendly materials should also be supported by an increase in clean renewable energy sources. Lower energy consumption means fewer carbon emissions but also financial savings, making this an appealing measure for manufacturers. New technologies are proving a major gamechanger on this front, helping manufacturers marry their environmental stewardship with cost savings and efficiency.  3D printing, for example, can help develop optimum product moulds more quickly, refining production parameters to minimise raw materials volumes and maximising output productivity.

Similarly, ‘digital twin’ production software uses inline sensors to create a virtual, real-time mirror of the production environment to enable inline refinements. The objective is to achieve “zero defect”, waste-free manufacturing. In addition to this, LEAN manufacturing methodologies are already helping to optimise inventory management and reduce overproduction. 

Sustainability by Design

It is increasingly clear that effective environmental sustainability in the medical device sector cannot exist without a full view of the product life cycle from concept development, material selection, design and engineering to manufacturing, packaging, transportation, sales, use, and end-of-life disposal. These evaluations are typically made for factors such as manufacturing efficiency, time to market, or safety and regulatory compliance, packaging and transportation costs, but should be extended to energy efficiency and environmental impact by means such as life cycle analysis.  

In addition to this, with devices rapidly becoming more digitally connected, developers need to be aware that the costs of disposable electronics would simply not be viable, or indeed acceptable in the light of electronics disposal regulations. Design therefore should focus on creating a simple, repeatable interface between the two component sections so as not to impair the functionality or efficacy. As reducing waste and harmful emissions continues to exert businesses and governments globally, the medical devices industry cannot stand by. The environmental but also commercial implications of inaction are too serious and the array of solutions now available is exciting and diverse.

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