Automation: helping the UK health sector through COVID
It hardly needs stating that the pandemic is the biggest global health crisis for generations. Not just because of the human toll, but also the pressure it’s put on already struggling healthcare systems.
The NHS is in a precarious position. In fact, Marcel Levi, chief executive of the University College London Hospitals Trust, said it could take “a very long time” to clear the backlog of routine surgery and procedures, which has built up because of cancellations during the pandemic. In his view, COVID-19 nearly disabled the NHS.
But things could have been worse without support from Robotic Process Automation (RPA). While it isn’t a silver bullet, it’s played an important role in the last year, helping front-line staff. For example, Mater Hospital in Dublin was quick to deploy RPA. As cases began to rise, it needed to log COVID-19 test results in different systems to report to Infection Prevention and Control (IPC). Given the scale of testing, this was a huge task taking up to 50 per cent of a nurse’s time.
Robots took over. The information was processed in a fraction of the time nurses spent doing it, saving the infection control department three hours per day, 18 hours per week and 936 hours a year, while also eliminating human error. They could then deliver essential services, including PPE training for nurses with COVID-19 patients.
Globally, there are many other examples of RPA in healthcare throughout the pandemic.
It’s cut waiting times, mobilised medical staff and maintained vital medical supplies. When crisis hit, it’s been those organisations using automation that have had the edge. Not only that, as the pandemic recedes, they’ll be well positioned for it to support their recovery.
In fact, reflecting on the robot she introduced in 2020, Jincy Jerry, assistant director of nursing, infection and prevention and control at Mater, says, “The areas of application for this robot are endless. Any department, which spends a significant amount of time on a repetitive, administrative task could benefit.” She points out that it’s not just doctors and nurses that are supported. Those dealing with patient waiting lists could also benefit, paving the way for a quicker recovery from backlogs.
Meanwhile, NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS) had been using RPA extensively to create efficiencies and reduce costs before the pandemic. There are around 850 separate financial processes carried out by NHS SBS, covering reconciliations, cash flow, invoice payment, debt collection and more. Since 2016, 250 of these processes have been handed to robots. By taking on these functions in the most efficient way possible, resources are saved that can be ploughed back into reducing waiting lists and backlogs.
Of course, none of this comes without challenges, but these are far from insurmountable. Perhaps the best way to get going is to avoid the urge to immediately pick out single processes and tactically automate them. To gain the best results from RPA, leaders need to take a strategic view, embedding the technology across the enterprise and not just in pockets.
They also need to pay attention to cultural challenges. Employees sometimes think robots are going to take jobs. This couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in healthcare where there is already a skills gap. RPA is not about replacing staff but augmenting them. If staff correctly understand RPA through education, they will welcome it and the burden it lifts.
It's safe to say the automation genie is out of the bottle. It’s proven itself in the crisis of the pandemic – and it’s about to prove itself again now we face the new challenge of nursing our healthcare systems back to health.
Rory joined techUK in June 2023 after three years in the Civil Service on its Fast Stream leadership development programme.
During this time, Rory worked on the Government's response to Covid-19 (NHS Test & Trace), school funding strategy (Department for Education) and international climate and nature policy (Cabinet Office). He also tackled the social care crisis whilst on secondment to techUK's Health and Social Care programme in 2022.
Before this, Rory worked in the House of Commons and House of Lords alongside completing degrees in Political Economy and Global Politics.
Today, he is techUK's Programme Manager for Emerging Technologies, covering dozens of technologies including metaverse, drones, future materials, robotics, blockchain, space technologies, nanotechnology, gaming tech and Web3.0.
Laura is techUK’s Head of Programme for Technology and Innovation.
She supports the application and expansion of emerging technologies, including Quantum Computing, High-Performance Computing, AR/VR/XR and Edge technologies, across the UK. As part of this, she works alongside techUK members and UK Government to champion long-term and sustainable innovation policy that will ensure the UK is a pioneer in science and technology
Before joining techUK, Laura worked internationally as a conference researcher and producer covering enterprise adoption of emerging technologies. This included being part of the strategic team at London Tech Week.
Laura has a degree in History (BA Hons) from Durham University, focussing on regional social history. Outside of work she loves reading, travelling and supporting rugby team St. Helens, where she is from.