Tackling the demands of a digital world in an analogue healthcare industry
Quality of life and life expectancy have vastly improved over time due in no small part to medical and technological advances. At the same time, populations worldwide are aging at an unprecedented rate. As a result, the demand for healthcare is outpacing the ability of healthcare systems to provide it.
The healthcare industry is under enormous strain to provide quality healthcare at affordable prices. Enterprise wide there is abundant evidence of inefficiencies and underperformance due to information blockage. Healthcare is probably the most information rich of all industries, yet despite spending vast sums on IT there is little value to show for it.
It has become clear in recent years just how much pressure many Healthcare organisations are under. For example, recent statistics from the Care Quality Commission found that the UK’s NHS is ‘straining at the seams’ with more than 90% of hospital beds being occupied without staff increases to keep up with demand. To add to this, statistics from a survey by The Guardian show that over half of Healthcare professionals believe that NHS IT systems are not fit for purpose.
Other industries have minded the gap between old analogue and new digital solutions to business problems. They have demonstrated the value of digitally transforming information flow by automating processes, rationalising workflow, and improving customer services.
Moving away from an analogue approach
The most common problem in healthcare industries today is that key health information does not follow the patient. It doesn’t flow. It gets stuck; “siloed.” It cannot be shared, quickly and accurately, to coordinate rapid service delivery processes, and it cannot be collected by key stakeholders. As a result, providers under-deliver evidence-based care, researchers miss opportunities to produce new evidence, systems suffer from lack of automation, workflow is inefficient.
Consider, for example, the Electronic Health Records (EHR) that are being rolled out more widely within the healthcare industry. These do not come cheaply to the providers that deploy them or the governments that subsidise them, yet there has been minimal guidance for healthcare organisations around how they can utilise EHRs to the greatest advantage. As a result, the data they contain is not interoperable. It is largely inaccessible to those who need it.
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The vision we should be working towards is one where all stakeholders can easily access security protected information they need. A patient should be able to share their personal data, for example on existing medical conditions or their medical history, with up to the full healthcare ecosystem with which they interact. This information should then be accessible and acted upon in real-time by those who receive it. Ultimately, this will reduce unnecessary care and reduce geographic variation. It is the clearest way to add value to the healthcare industry.
The future of healthcare lies in interoperability.
It is not hard to see that IT, applied correctly and effectively, has a vital role to play in the world class healthcare systems of the future. The price, quality and availability of healthcare services relies on timely access to secure and accurate information for authorised caregivers. The healthcare industry can learn from the mobile and telecommunications sector, in which users can make calls and transfer information to users of other networks freely and easily.
Collaboration is key. An organisation cannot solve the problem of interoperability on its own. Groups including healthcare providers, innovators, governing bodies and standards development organisations must work together to create and apply pioneering solutions to the challenges faced by the healthcare industry.
Poorly integrated and inadequate technology systems can have a direct and negative effect on patient care. In contrast, effective healthcare processes and technologies can both boost existing services and facilitate new ones, which in turn reduces the strain on healthcare providers and improves the end-user experience.
The lynchpin that will hold all of this together is the ability to have real-time access to accurate data, which will help determine the quality of healthcare services going forward. Leaders in the sector must strive to create an ecosystem where patient information can flow securely and electronically to where it is needed and when it is needed.
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.