Accelerating healthcare’s automation journey: why RPA is now a critical enabler
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a hot topic in health and social care. Since the pandemic, the advantages it offers have never been more significant. With the urgent need to clear backlogs while looking after staff, automating administrative tasks saves valuable clinical and non-clinical time – not to mention energy – and frees up staff for higher-value activities and more time with patients.
Sharing lessons and setting standards
The benefits of RPA – when it’s applied in the right way – are compelling. This has been underlined in the UK, for example, with the recent publication of NHS England Transformation Directorate’s national guidance for NHS organizations to develop RPA capabilities – the first ever guidance of its kind.
The clear need for such guidance is recognition, firstly of how important RPA is now perceived to be at a strategic level. And secondly how valuable it is to share expertise and best practice for health and care users – not least because patient safety must be built in. At Atos, working with NHS England Transformation Directorate to produce this new guidance, we’ve seen first-hand how crucial it is that healthcare organizations implement RPA in a way that’s right for them.
What is automation?
No healthcare organization today can afford to overlook RPA. Clinical and digital leaders need to understand what it means, where they will most benefit from RPA as a way to augment staff – and also where they won’t benefit from this technology.
So, when we talk about automation, what do we mean? Experience shows that there can be some confusion. The term ‘automation’ covers a wide range of technologies that reduce human intervention in processes by predetermining decision criteria, subprocess relationships, and related actions.
Clinical and digital leaders need to understand what RPA means, where they will most benefit from it as a way to augment staff – and also where they won’t benefit from this technology.
In the context of business process improvement, automation capabilities can be clustered into three distinct groups based on actions they enable, and their technological sophistication and complexity. These groups are Robotic Process Automation, intelligent automation and artificial intelligence.
- Robotic Process Automation imitates activities carried out by humans. It can automate high volume, rule based, repeatable tasks, delivered just like its human counterparts. But RPA can only handle structured and digitized data.
- Intelligent automation uses more sophisticated technologies than RPA for structured decision making. It can simulate rule-based decisions to automate more complicated tasks. It mainly handles structured data, but some IA technologies can digitize unstructured data to further enable RPA.
- Artificial intelligence refers to computer software with ability to think. It allows examining of large, unstructured, varied data sets to uncover hidden patterns, trends, customer preferences and other useful data that can help inform better decisions.
Front, middle and back-office RPA benefits
RPA enables the build, deployment, and management of software (robots) that can be programmed to emulate human actions and interact with digital systems to automate basic manual and repetitive tasks. Broadly, there are three areas of healthcare in which RPA can deliver major benefits:
- Front office – freeing up time to focus on the most important activities: providing best-in-class care to patients
- Middle office – maximizing the value of data to inform strategy and improve effectiveness of budgeting, reporting and program functions
- Back office – driving efficiency gains in high-volume repetitive processes that can be delivered more efficiently and securely.
While it’s fair to say that the scope of RPA has traditionally been seen as mainly in back-office functions like HR, finance and accounting, this perception is shifting. RPA is increasingly being used in other creative ways alongside other technologies such as computer vision (in other words video capabilities), machine learning, and even to augment existing system capabilities where integration between applications is not possible.
Leading with clinical and operational outcomes
While RPA technologies are certainly mature, any initiative to develop and deploy automation is not actually a technical program. Wherever organizations are on their automation journeys, it’s imperative that clinical and operational outcomes are the real drivers behind RPA. Proven benefits include cost reduction, auditability, productivity, employee satisfaction, speed, reliability, flexibility, light touch, and reduced attrition.
Time must be invested in really understanding pain points, opportunities and the potential benefits. Organizations need access to expertise to ensure that RPA is integrated and that the design of processes is right for automation. That’s why organizations need the right RPA partners who understand not only the technology but the specific demands and requirements of healthcare.