The value of healthcare data to empower tomorrow’s patients
The term ‘participatient’ is about empowering patients to take part in their own healthcare, and I don’t think this has ever mattered more. With an ageing population, increases in the number of those with complex long-term health conditions, and growing evidence of the lasting effects of the coronavirus, - it’s safe to say that better-informed patients will have a smoother road to recovery. It also means an easier process for clinicians if less time is spent struggling with less-informed and more advice-dependent patients. But what is the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to turning the idea into reality?
The use of apps and remote care solutions is on the rise, and Spring 2020 saw the rapid adoption of these practices. I am of the view that to really understand a patient’s data sufficiently to offer effective, accurate and actionable advice requires AI-enabled systems. There are just far too many data points to link into burgeoning evidence bases for any other stratagem. But as the healthcare system takes stock of the impact of the pandemic, what will be left is the realisation that these solutions aren’t just helpful in times of crisis; they’re essential for the future of how we deliver healthcare.
The benefits of AI-enabled patient participation
How would this idealised system of healthcare work? Understanding that means understanding the benefits to be gained from people playing an active part in managing their health – improved lifestyles and health maintenance, more accurate self-care, and less information dependency upon clinicians.
Then, when people ‘enter the system’, clinicians also benefit from diagnostic and treatment decisions aided by AI-driven guidance, like having a ‘second pair of eyes’ to support them – creating clear pathways and aiding the dialogue between clinicians and patients. After diagnosis, ‘participatients’ can access personalised, intelligence-driven digital health services via apps and online systems, cutting down on calls to doctors and saving time. ‘Participatients’ with complex co-morbidities will also have better outcomes, due to the intelligence-driven pathways that inform their treatment.
If clinicians can use AI-driven solutions to see the link between the actual clinical outcomes people experience and their genomic attributes, diagnostic and interventional procedures and prescribed drugs - better pathways can be established and effectively communicated with the patient, leading to better outcomes.
A patient that is well-informed, from clear pathways set out by clinicians, is far more likely to take an active role in their own treatment. It takes a partnership between the two, enabled by AI, to make the best outcomes a reality.
Clarity of communication
Communication between clinician and patient is vital to making this happen, particularly in the management of long-term health conditions, and in a world where remote care is now a ‘must-have’. A lack of face-to-face contact needn’t be a barrier to good communication anymore.
Clarity of communication becomes stronger when all the data about a patient’s care - across major acute diagnostic hubs, local acute treatments, community and social care support and GPs - is easily accessible from a single source to clinician and patient alike. This is also far more valuable when clinicians and patients have access to AI to interpret that data. It’s that combination of AI and the human touch that lies in the future for the NHS.
The AI-enabled participatient
AI-enabled digital solutions are the key to unlocking the true value of active patient participation. The concept of patients taking more of a role in managing themselves has been in our sights for a long time. If both patient and clinician have access to their data across multiple settings, that is a good start. If the clinician can use AI-enabled solutions to interpret the data and make recommendations, that elevates it to the next level, and then we can reach the true potential of the ‘participatient’.
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.