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Intelligent automation: a shot in the arm for our challenged NHS

The pandemic continues to put the NHS under monumental pressure and the repercussions are impacting an array of services within the healthcare sector. And now, despite the ongoing rollout of the COVID vaccines, and the Government’s new COVID roadmap, we are not out of the woods just yet. Firefighting has been the priority over the last year, with multitudes of consultations, procedures and surgeries postponed. This has caused a significant backlog of non-COVID related appointments, with almost 4.6 million people on hospital waiting lists according to December 2020 figures. To overcome this and improve patient experience in the new normal, optimum efficiency, powered by automation, will be critical.

The pandemic has already spiked huge investment into digital acceleration. Throughout 2020, the sector has witnessed a whopping 660% increase in patients using NHS login accounts to access digital health and care services, which has played a huge role in relieving the demand on NHS staff. Trusts have also been instrumental in helping with the vaccine rollout, with some developing support apps designed to help with consent and appointment reminders. But healthcare has barely scratched the surface of what can be achieved with the right technology.

Automate to renovate  

This includes intelligent automation, which will be instrumental in not only the growth and development of the NHS, but in its overall success of caring for its patients. Though the UK’s vaccination plan is well underway, healthcare will soon be faced with the realities of a huge patient backlog, which will require streamlined internal processes to overcome. In this situation, outdated and manual administrative processes simply will not suffice. When broken down, the importance of this digital transformation becomes clear: every letter that is posted is money that could be spent on patient care. And every missed appointment is an opportunity wasted to provide that care.

The rapid nature of the pandemic and the pressure on the NHS left little time to streamline internal processes, and so the use of spreadsheets and other manual processes proliferated purely as a means of keeping up. Moving forward, however, these inflexible processes, especially those that are prone to human error, must now be replaced with a long-term solution that is underpinned by intelligent and automated technologies. The time has been and gone for healthcare providers to consider and contemplate the ways in which automation can help improve efficiency. Now is the time to act – and fast. Every NHS Trust should be examining processes to prioritise what can, and should, be automated and taken off over-stretched human workers. In addition to the high-level patient and employee-focused processes, this includes going back to basics and utilising RPA and low-code to automate tasks such as invoicing processing, back-office administration and operations across various departments. Not only will this increase efficiency and help alleviate patient backlogs, but it will also give healthcare staff more time to focus on what really matters: patient care.

RPA and low-code – the healthcare dream team

Whilst RPA alone can provide organisations with an array of benefits, these results can be enhanced through the use of Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) technologies, such as low-code. These two technologies can work in complete harmony, with RPA handling the tasks and low-code managing the processes, enabling healthcare providers to redistribute resources and focus more on patient care.

The main benefit of PaaS technologies – particularly low-code – is the speed in which it can deliver solutions to help alleviate healthcare pressures, such as appointment backlogs and fast-paced vaccine rollouts – especially given the need to administer the vaccine in two doses. Its ease of use means that everyday users can develop processes and take ideas from concept to reality with minimal IT intervention, in minimal time. This is particularly important in a rapidly evolving landscape where new government guidelines (for example, around vaccination timelines) are requiring new decisions and process changes to be made on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Organisations have even been able to advance the use and benefits of RPA, with one Belgium hospital incorporating it in the review process of patient records for dispensing prescription medication.

One of the main areas the RPA and low-code partnership excels in is within healthcare call and appointment booking centres. Previously, advisors would have to navigate multiple systems simultaneously whilst also engaging with patients on the phone. The effort and time taken to input the information would naturally detract focus from the caller. This is where low-code and RPA can help deliver quality and efficiency benefits, as they are able to navigate those systems and automate processes on behalf of advisors while they deal with the more emotional and human side of interactions.

Behavioural and cultural shifts

Patient communication preferences have also been in a great deal of flux during the pandemic. Whilst there has been a big – and forced – shift towards digital engagement, the majority of healthcare patients generally see tech as something to supplement, not replace, face-to-face interaction. Now, however, preference has shifted again, with most people wanting to steer clear of surgeries and hospitals where possible, from fear of infection. When considering the best communication channels, healthcare staff need to be mindful of the demographic of patients requiring the most attention and ensure that communication channels are accessible to all. For example, the elderly, who may be less digitally adept, might struggle with video consultations. Telephone and text messaging services therefore continue to be vital lifelines for many, particularly in situations of high-level patient engagement, such as waiting list applications. In fact, research has already shown that UK citizens agree the telephone has been a crucial communication method during the pandemic.

Voice messaging is also a key area that businesses should consider and develop. Automated phone responses, whilst effective in freeing up frontline workers, can seem impersonal. In general, people respond better to people, especially when it comes down to their health. Therefore, providing patients with a voice recorded message from an actual person – instead of a robot – can help reassure them that there is a human ready to help. This should be supported by a clear escalation path, so that patients know their query will be elevated to an actual employee if necessary.

The future of intelligent automation in healthcare

The future of health and technology is expanding in many different directions. The latest announcement of the NHS’ new Patient and Healthcare Communications and Related IT Services Framework is evidence of this progression. But there is still a long way to go. Other industries are accelerating through technological development – from automated insurance claims handing to proactive notification in delivery services – and it’s time for healthcare to do the same. And this is where automation can help: it can help make the time for joined-up patient journeys. It is these strong patient interactions – aided by technology – that will bring patients and healthcare providers closer together, and propel the NHS forward into a more stable future.

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