How tech innovations can help healthcare during the pandemic
Dr Anne Blackwood describes Health Enterprise East (HEE) as the "interface" between the UK's National Health Service and the technology industry. Founded in 2004, HEE was originally funded by the UK's Department of Health, and was part of a national network of NHS innovation hubs that aimed to support frontline healthcare staff who had an idea for a new product and needed help to commercialise it.
Working with frontline staff and SMEs in the medtech community, HEE helps them understand each other's needs, including economic challenges and how medical devices can change the way a patient moves through the healthcare system, such as a self-test at home instead of at a hospital clinic.
This in particular is a growing trend, especially since the Covid pandemic began. Blackwood explains that when the crisis started technology within the NHS dramatically scaled up to make remote consultations in people's homes widely available. "It's a great example of technology that's been around for years, and yet its adoption within the NHS had been poor, primarily because of scepticism about its benefits, and whether patients would be able to cope with it."
"Of course Covid has rapidly changed everyone's perception of its benefits. For example the elderly population, once they're motivated to speak to their grandchildren on Skype or Zoom calls, suddenly find that having a video consultation with their clinician is something they're able to navigate, and indeed welcome."
This signifies a big shift in how the NHS has traditionally delivered care. "There's been a rapid transition from a paternalistic healthcare system where the doctor knows best, and you get an appointment at their convenience, not your convenience. Covid has turned that on its head and actually now things are much more at the patient's convenience."
But parts of the system are under immense strain at the moment, with the pandemic leading to a pause in many treatments. "A clinician involved in colonoscopies came to us, who at the moment has a very long waiting list. One of the challenges they have is the risk of infection, which means that between each colonoscopy they have to deep clean the theatre before the next patient can be brought in. They used to do six procedures in a day, curently it's only three. Waiting lists within the NHS are at a record level now."
To address this, the clinician and HEE are working on a device that can isolate this part of the body, with the aim of reducing the risk of infection and therefore cutting downtime in theatres.
Technology that can minimise the threat of infection, assist with faster, better ways of disinfecting areas, and provide healthcare remotely, is needed more than ever at the moment. HEE are currently working on another initiative to provide care to breast cancer patients. "The surgeon came to us particularly concerned about the mental health of many of his patients, who were concened that delays in treatment may have a very negative impact on progression of their disease. We are developing an app to help provide them with reassurance and guidance while they're primarily managed remotely. The surgeon sees the benefits of regular communication with his patients - even when treatments are back to normal."
Blackwood believes that there must be a focus on mental health. "I think innovations that support the mental health of patients and also the mental health of staff, particularly those working in the ICU and some of the other more sensitive areas, are needed. They've really been through a very challenging period, and have lost many more patients than they would normally in a short space of time. Staff need particular emotional support to deal with some of the things they've seen, and we'll definitely see some innovation in that space, perhaps delivered through digital therapies."
How UiPath robots are helping with the NHS backlog
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many hospitals to have logistical nightmares, as backlogs of surgeries built up as a result of cancellations. The BMJ has estimated it will take the UK's National Health Service (NHS) a year and a half to recover.
However software robots can help, by automating computer-based processes such as replenishing inventory, managing patient bookings, and digitising patient files. Mark O’Connor, Public Sector Director for Ireland at UiPath, tells us how they deployed robots at Mater Hospital in Dublin, saving clinicians valuable time.
When Did Mater Hospital implement the software robots - was it specifically to address the challenges of the pandemic?
The need for automation at Mater Hospital pre-existed the pandemic but it was the onset of COVID-19 that got the team to turn to the technology and start introducing software robots into the workflow of doctors and nurses.
The pandemic placed an increased administrative strain on the Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) department at Mater Hospital in Dublin. To combat the problem and ensure that nurses could spend more time with their patients and less time on admin, the IPC deployed its first software robots in March 2020.
The IPC at Mater plans to continue using robots to manage data around drug resistant microbes such as MRSA once the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
What tasks do they perform?
In the IPC at Mater Hospital, software robots have taken the task of reporting COVID-19 test results. Pre-automation, the process created during the 2003 SARS outbreak required a clinician to log into the laboratory system, extract a disease code and then manually enter the results into a data platform. This was hugely time consuming, taking up to three hours of a nurse’s day.
UiPath software robots are now responsible for this task. They process the data in a fraction of the time, distributing patient results in minutes and consequently freeing up to 18 hours of each IPC nurse’s time each week, and up to 936 hours over the course of a year. As a result, the healthcare professionals can spend more time caring for their patients and less time on repetitive tasks and admin work.
Is there any possibility of error with software robots, compared to humans?
By nature, humans are prone to make mistakes, especially when working under pressure, under strict deadlines and while handling a large volume of data while performing repetitive tasks.
Once taught the process, software robots, on the other hand, will follow the same steps every time without the risk of the inevitable human error. Simply speaking, robots can perform data-intensive tasks more quickly and accurately than humans can.
Which members of staff benefit the most, and what can they do with the time saved?
In the case of Mater Hospital, the IPC unit has adopted a robot for every nurse approach. This means that every nurse in the department has access to a robot to help reduce the burden of their admin work. Rather than spending time entering test results, they can focus on the work that requires their human ingenuity, empathy and skill – taking care of their patients.
In other sectors, the story is no different. Every job will have some repetitive nature to it. Whether that be a finance department processing thousands of invoices a day or simply having to send one daily email. If a task is repetitive and data-intensive, the chances are that a software robot can help. Just like with the nurses in the IPC, these employees can then focus on handling exceptions and on work that requires decision making or creativity - the work that people enjoy doing.
How can software robots most benefit healthcare providers both during a pandemic and beyond?
When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, software robots were deployed to lessen the administrative strain healthcare professionals were facing and give them more time to care for an increased number of patients. With hospitals around the world at capacity, every moment with a patient counted.
Now, the NHS and other healthcare providers face a huge backlog of routine surgeries and procedures following cancellations during the pandemic. In the UK alone, 5 million people are waiting for treatment and it’s estimated that this could cause 6,400 excess deaths by the end of next year if the problem isn’t rectified.
Many healthcare organisations have now acquired the skills needed to deploy automation, therefore it will be easier for them to build more robots to respond to the backlog going forwards. Software robots that had been processing registrations at COVID test sites, for example, could now be taught how to schedule procedures, process patient details or even manage procurement and recruitment to help streamline the processes associated with the backlog. The possibilities are vast.
The technology, however, should not be considered a short-term, tactical and reactive solution that can be deployed in times of crisis. Automation has the power to solve systematic problems that healthcare providers face year-round. Hospital managers should consider the wider challenge of dealing with endless repetitive work that saps the energy of professionals and turns attention away from patient care and discuss how investing in a long-term automation project could help alleviate these issues.
How widely adopted is this technology in healthcare at the moment?
Automation was being used in healthcare around the world before the pandemic, but the COVID-19 outbreak has certainly accelerated the trend.
Automation’s reach is wide. From the NHS Shared Business Service in the UK to the Cleveland Clinic in the US and healthcare organisations in the likes of Norway, India and Canada, we see a huge range of healthcare providers deploying automation technology.
Many healthcare providers, however, are still in the early stages of their journeys or are just discovering automation’s potential because of the pandemic. I expect to see the deployment of software robots in healthcare grow over the coming years as its benefits continue to be realised globally.
How do you see this technology evolving in the future?
If one thing is certain, it’s that the technology will continue to evolve and grow over time – and I believe there will come a point in time when all processes that can be automated, will be automated. This is known as the fully automated enterprise.
By joining all automation projects into one enterprise-wide effort, the healthcare industry can tap into the full benefits of the technology. This will involve software robots becoming increasingly intelligent in order to reach and improve more processes. Integrating the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning into automation, for example, will allow providers to reach non-rule-based processes too.
We are already seeing steps towards this being taken by NHS Shared Business Service, for example. The organisation, which provides non-clinical services to around two-thirds of all NHS provider trusts and every clinical commissioning organisation in the UK, is working to create an entire eco-system of robots. It believes that no automation should be looked at in isolation, but rather the technology should stretch across departments and functions. As such, inefficiencies in the care pathway can be significantly reduced, saving healthcare providers a substantial amount of time and money.