Is the UK’s NHS warming up to robotic process automation?

Automation could save the NHS up to US$16.33 billion per annum. Should it give it a shot?
9 October 2018

Patients are about to get more attention in the UK. Source: Shutterstock

Among all the industries today, the healthcare industry still seems heavily reliant on human support — for even the most basic of jobs. However, it’s one that is also rapidly being disrupted by technology.

Recently, one of the United Kingdom’s National Health Services (NHS) Trusts, the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT) announced that it’ll be using robotic process automation (RPA) to significantly cut down the costs associated with administrative tasks.

In an exclusive interview with TechHQ, Darren Atkins, Deputy Director of ICT at ESNEFT said, “Our goal is to help free up time for our frontline staff so they can focus on what’s most important — caring for the patient”.

So far, in the initial deployment, ESNEFT has cut the time taken to process the first stage of each GP referral from 15-20 minutes down to five minutes. The program will eliminate the need for staff to spend more than 100 hours a week processing paperwork and instead ensures referrals are actioned 24/7.

The intelligent automation program, which has been running since July is the first of its kind within the NHS and is initially being deployed in five specialist clinical units – Neurology, Cardiology, Urology, Nephrology, and Haematology.

Within the first three months, the ESNEFT released more than 500 hours of medical secretaries’ time and estimates it will also save GBP220,000 (US$ 287,0000) in associated direct costs by July 2019. However, according to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), automation could save the NHS up to GBP12.5 billion (US$16.33 billion) a year, the equivalent of 10 percent of its annual budget.

Setting up the project

Atkins, credited with conceptualizing the project, setting it up and implementing it, and actually deploying it all said that one of the most interesting things he found was that the costs were quite low in comparison to his expectations.

“I thought it would cost more than GBP250,000 (US$326,0000), but it seems as though RPA isn’t that expensive. It cost us about GBP 120,000 (US$156,000) all in. That’s quite exciting, isn’t it?” said Atkins.

However, the implementing team wasn’t just surprised by the costs associated with the project. There were also stunned by the time required to complete the project. It took the team three days to get the systems (digital workers) in place and six weeks to train them.

“Our speed to market was 6 weeks in all. That’s quite exciting, especially in this line of work,” exclaimed Atkins.

Scaling up what we do

“It is our ambition to get 3 new processes per month on this automated system via the virtual workforce that we’re building,” announced Atkins — and although that sounds great, it’s only part of the plan he has for the ESNEFT.

The NHS believes in shared learning, it’s something that has helped the organization scale and grow despite budgetary and statutory constraints, all to serve the people of the country.

Atkins, through his project at the ESNEFT, wants to create a platform of autonomous healthcare administrative services that can be leveraged by any other member organization of the NHS.

“In the long run, building something like this will reduce the cost of entry and accelerate the implementation for NHS member organizations,” said Atkins.

The ESNEFT’s Deputy Director of ICT understands that the biggest challenge to adopting RPA in the industry is that it seems too good to be true — which is why he believes what he has done at the ESNEFT will serve as a case study and proof of concept for what other members can achieve — and encourage them to follow suit.

Ultimately, RPA is going to help the NHS maximize its resources so patients get the attention and care they deserve. The project at the ESNEFT is definitely a promising start.