Overcoming the physical barriers to digital medicine
There is arguably no environment where ergonomics is more important than in a healthcare facility, where poorly designed equipment has the potential to harm those who heal and make patient care more difficult. When nurses and doctors are more comfortable in their physical space, they can do their job more efficiently, communicate with other nurses and physicians more easily and complete tasks with fewer interruptions.
One of the biggest disruptors within the healthcare industry – if not the world – in recent years has been technology. Whilst technology has helped healthcare to move ahead leaps and bounds, it has also caused friction from an ergonomics point of view.
Many facilities were built decades before the advent of electronic health records (EHRs) and were not designed to accommodate high-tech, digital solutions and products like patient e-tablets or configurable medical carts. These technologies, when not effectively integrated in a hospital design with a focus on ergonomics, can negatively affect the patient experience, clinician safety and, ultimately, the facility’s bottom line.
The applied science of ergonomics focuses on designing and arranging physical things like healthcare information technology (HIT) for users to interact most efficiently and safely. In hospital settings, ergonomics impacts two key measures of success: nurse engagement and patient experience.
Today, many clinicians struggle to adapt their already crowded environments in a way that’s convenient and comfortable, much less ergonomic. Twenty-first century technology like smart devices, documentation carts and medication delivery stations vie for space and attention in a patient room. Even efficient workflows can be hampered by the multiple challenges facing healthcare workers today.
In order to successfully integrate technology into the healthcare environment, executives need to take a patient-centric focus to care. Patient-centric care should equally balance the patient, caregiver and technology in a “triangle of care.” In this environment, the provider partially faces the computer display and the patient, and the patient can interact with the screen and provider simultaneously.
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Mobile carts and wall workstations work to improve patient engagement, but today's healthcare facilities are still are not fully designed to accommodate them, and caregivers are not always adequately trained on how to best leverage them. Existing healthcare facilities were designed to optimise clinician workflow without technology in mind, so patient rooms are often too small to accommodate the medical equipment that is considered commonplace today.
In Ergotron’s survey with HIMSS Analytics in the US, Finding the Disconnect: A Communication Breakdown in Healthcare IT, respondents ranked space restrictions and placement of fixed equipment as the biggest challenges when using technology at the patient’s bedside.
Staff at various points in the care continuum recognise the need to upgrade existing facilities to align with today’s digital solutions. Yet, as expected, different stakeholders voice varying priorities. Leaders hone in on the budget and bottom line, while IT professionals prefer the latest and greatest technology, and point-of-care professionals think about their daily routine and how infrastructure impacts the patient experience.
When asked to rank the factors influencing technology equipment decisions, overall results in the same survey showed budget is ranked highest, while equipment ergonomics is ranked lowest. While ergonomics may not rise to the top when considering elements to prioritise, it has been shown to improve efficiencies – a well-known pain point with EHR adoption. Incorporating ergonomics into the equation while aligning priorities across stakeholders helps ensure a holistic perspective that supports the organisation’s overall success.
As hospitals continue to implement new healthcare solutions, healthcare space planners, IT decision makers, clinicians and facility leadership need to consider the broader organisation’s goals to improve patient experience, ensure clinician satisfaction and maintain the bottom line.
Ultimately, as healthcare organisations are forced to change the way they do business, it is vital that the technology and equipment within each care facility be as ergonomic, and its implementation as seamless, as possible.
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.