POINT OF VIEW
Intelligent Automation in the NHS
Automation in a broad sense refers to the design and implementation of a range of technologies to create and provide goods and services with marginal human involvement. The application of intelligent automation technologies, techniques and processes can improve the efficiency, reliability, and/or speed of many internal processes that were previously performed by overstretched human workers.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS has experienced extraordinary demand. As a result, almost every department has encountered additional pressure – from planning internal operations to providing emergency care and managing patient data.
Automation Integrates with NHS’ Long-Term Strategy
However, operational challenges were recognised well before COVID-19. In 2019, the NHS Long Term Plan set out a 10-year strategy for improving and reforming the healthcare sector in England, and one of the main tactics was to embrace technology to improve patient care and patient experience.
Intelligent automation in the NHS is key not only to its expansion and development but also in the overall success of caring for its patients. For example, using intelligent tools to capture data in ways that empower NHS staff will alleviate healthcare pressures and reduce the manual administrative processes. Intelligent automation solutions can eliminate unwarranted variation across the whole pathway of care, enabling healthcare providers to help in applying best practice and supporting patients in managing their health and condition.
The nature of the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic has put increasing strain on the NHS, which has resulted in lack of time to streamline internal processes. The use of spreadsheets and other labour-intensive processes to track data are inflexible, manual and prone to error. Many of these manual processes require long-term solutions which can be supported by intelligent and automated technologies.
NHS Trusts ought to take the time to analyse processes to highlight what can and should be automated and moved away from relying on human workers. Basic automation processes could include utilising Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and low-code to automate tasks such as recruitment, staff training, insurance claims handling, back-office administration and operations across various departments. This will increase quality and efficiency benefits and help alleviate patient backlogs. It will also give the healthcare sector more time to focus on what really matters: patient care.
Intelligent Automation Can Accelerate Several Processes
Automation was being used in the NHS before the pandemic, however, the COVID-19 outbreak has certainly accelerated the trend.
Many NHS trusts are still in the early stages of their digital transformation journey or are just discovering automation’s potential because of the pandemic. Here’s a list of processes that could be powered by intelligent automation:
Recruitment processes can be automated to improve candidate experience, reduce costs and free up staff capacity to allow them to work on value adding tasks, thereby improving their employment experience.
Patient Appointment Scheduling, Reminders and Cancellations
More and more GP surgeries are beginning to use intelligent automation to help with patient appointment reminders and cancellations, prioritise patients most in need and identify the right level of care and support needed for patients on waiting lists.
In some instances, staff training is still organised by manual email notifications. Managing such systems takes up considerable time and resources, and makes it very challenging for HR departments to track individuals’ progress. Recognising that the volume and variety of staff training could mean mandatory training is not completed by staff, is an enough reason to seek to boost its preparedness and resilience.
Automating suitable elements of the process can alleviate the pressure on HR staff and automate the training scheduling and capture staff progress.
Get the Best Out of Intelligent Automation in the NHS
Protect the human dimension of healthcare
There are three types of human ability that are difficult for technology to replicate: perception and manipulation; creativity; and emotional and social intelligence.
The use of intelligent automation in healthcare will not be determined simply by whether it is technically possible. We also need to understand where it is desirable, and where human input should be kept. Where empathy, dignity and compassion are needed in a process, either intelligent automation and/or artificial intelligence (AI) must support these vital human characteristics or should not be used for that process.
Build confidence in automation
Building confidence in automation is a process. It took a while for the ordinary driver to feel comfortable enough to switch the vehicle into self-driving mode for the first time. Likewise, it will take a while for NHS staff to trust automation.
Government and NHS leaders must engage with staff and the wider public to promote awareness and build confidence about technology-enabled care, as well as to better understand views about how these technologies should and should not be applied in health care.
Help staff to adapt and transform
Automation technologies will grow the capabilities of NHS staff and offer an opportunity to improve roles and enhance job quality, as well as create new roles.
Essentially, workforce strategy and planning will have to consider the growth and impacts of intelligent automation and artificial intelligence (AI), including the effect on care workers and healthcare patients generally.
Building a Successful Automation Plan
Building a plan for any successful project takes time and patience, however, if done right, it will provide you with “peace of mind” in the long term.
Step 1: Identify the right process for automation
Failure of over a third of all unsuccessful automation projects can be credited to an inadequate choice of the initial process for automation. Surely, you can do better! Identifying a strong use case at the very beginning is an important step in your digital transformation journey. Key factors to consider include:
- Data format involved in the process. Some forms of automation (e.g., robotic process automation) often require structured data.
- Is the process rule-based or judgement-based? Rules-based processes are ideal for RPA, whereas, for intelligent automation, it is possible to automate judgement-based.
- Type of data used (digital data or non-digital).
Step 2 – Recognise the key stakeholders
One of the key factors for success in any venture is getting the right people. Intelligent automation is no exception. When building the automation strategy, you need to select the right team of people, so make sure that you have competent people to fill in these roles in the team:
- Subject matter experts and process owners who know and understand the process.
- Automation developers.
- Infrastructure support staff.
It is crucial that stakeholders understand the benefits that automation will bring from the very beginning of the project.
Step 3 – Plan the project
To build a successful automation strategy, it is vital to plan thoroughly. Plans often involve a deep dive into the process and a collection of requirements. Usually, an automation project plan will include the following stages:
- Project plan, including goals, requirements, and a timeline of when these will be delivered.
- Initial meeting to bring all stakeholders on the same page and establish their roles on the project.
- Design, build and test the automation solution.
- Launch of the automated process.
- Monitor performance and improve to ensure that automation delivers expected results.
The Risks of Implementing Automation
As with everything, there are risks and issues with implementing automation solutions.
Automating processes before they are optimised
Optimising poor processes can easily lead to poor automation. Inefficiencies and gaps in a process should be analysed, recognised and dealt with during the design process. Intelligent automation projects should produce robust, first-class automation that won’t break down or erode the expected business value that it should be delivering – reduced healthcare pressures and, as a result, better patient experience.
Poor business process selection
If the wrong automation candidate is selected, to begin with, it could lead to problems later. Not all processes should be automated. When considering the process to automate, it is very important to define clear automation criteria and to have shared IT and business stakeholders in the project.
Rushing into automation often results in what typically happens when design and development are rushed – fragile automation that breaks.
Automation needs a considerate, mindful design process, that focuses on process improvement prior to the automation being delivered. The process itself should be linked to all related dependencies, this is crucial to enabling improved governance and change management.
Take the next step
Responsiv can help ensure the success of your initial automation project, we can then support you to start expanding your BPM adoption to additional projects, leveraging and sharing our expertise along the way to build a business process improvement program within your organisation. Our highly experienced consultants can provide support by augmenting the team or providing fixed price outcome-based solutions to automate processes within the organisation.
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