New growth predicted in mobile working in healthcare
Mobile working in the healthcare sector is predicted to grow rapidly, thanks to mounting evidence from existing projects which suggests the working practice could help NHS Trusts deliver much needed cost and efficiency savings.
The conclusion is drawn from research conducted by specialist software house NDL.
The research, published in NDL’s Mobile Working Report, surveyed a total of 200 senior individuals working in healthcare, social housing or local government.
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Currently almost 70 percent of healthcare projects have fewer than 100 participants, suggesting many are pilot projects set to grow in the next few years.
By 2014 only 27 percent of projects are expected to be restricted to less than 100 workers, while 25 percent will encompass between 501 and 1000 staff.
A further fifth will involve more than 1000 workers, suggesting projects of a significant scope.
The report also unveiled that mobile working projects, which up until now have been used mainly by district nurses and midwives working in the community, are being adopted by other disciplines.
Planning or pilot projects were reported in A&E, intensive care, radiology, hospital based nursing and occupational therapy as well as executive and IT functions.
Commenting of the findings, Declan Grogan, the managing director of NDL, said: “These figures relate to line of business mobile working projects which enable fieldworkers to carry out a transaction in situ to meet a clinical or organisational need.
“We predict that this technology could be used by a significant proportion of the 285,000 clinical mobile workers in the UK, with activity ranging from a district nurse updating the status of a patient to a midwife recording the weight of a newborn.
He added: “The figures reveal that we are certainly entering a growth phase for mobile working, helped no doubt by the growing body of evidence on the benefits of mobile working.”
Ninety-four percent of respondents with a live project reported a reduction in administration which in turned freed up frontline clinical staff to spend more time caring for patients.
Meanwhile, two associated benefits of increased efficiency and improved service delivery were reported by 82 percent and 70 percent of respondents respectively. Seventy percent of respondents also reported cost savings.
“Although these results are incredibly positive, it would be naive to ignore the impact the current economic climate will have on mobile working plans,” Declan continued.
“Our report showed that 72 percent of respondents believed that budgetary pressure was having a negative impact on mobile working plans, although 24 percent of respondents reported a positive effect. The remaining 4 percent said the cuts had both positive and negative connotations.
He added: “Given the combination of financial pressure and continuing strategic uncertainty, it’s perhaps surprising that the number of organisations reporting a negative effect isn’t higher.
“However it’s also true to say that 98 percent of respondents recognised cost as a barrier to mobile working, which makes an interesting contrast to local government organisations.”
The report revealed that the biggest barrier to mobile working in local government was cultural change, cited by 72 percent of respondents, while cost was the second biggest barrier at 67 percent.
In healthcare, cultural change was cited as a barrier by around 60 percent of those surveyed, with technical concerns around the flexibility of applications seen as a bigger concern at 70 percent.
“It’s interesting that the hurdles to mobile working vary so markedly across the public sector,” said Declan.
“While money is currently a significant barrier to getting mobile working off the ground in the health sector as the evidence about cost and efficiency savings mount, it’s arguably an easier one to overcome than the more emotive issue of cultural change.
“The relative openness of healthcare professionals to mobile working can only stand the NHS and other healthcare providers in good stead when it comes to realising the cost and efficiency benefits mobile working can bring,” he finished.
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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.