The healthcare sector must embrace automation – or face potential downfall

Ian McGregor, Vice President of Sales at UiPath

The healthcare sector, in particular the NHS, is crying out for technological evolution. Such evolution could make the difference between health services keeping pace with the UK’s changing demographics and evolving into a provider fit for the technological age – or failing altogether. 

Following years of pressure and warnings that health services are becoming less and less able to cope with even routine demands, experts now suggest that a combination of winter’s increased pressures and a no-deal Brexit could devastate the NHS. This could cause a huge level of disruption and panic and generate a backlog of processes that the NHS would struggle to cope with.

However, we have reached a point where the UK’s healthcare sector would struggle even without us potentially leaving the EU. The nation’s population is growing and people are living longer. Older people frequently suffer more serious health issues and use healthcare services more than the young; consequently, the treatment costs are greater, resulting in higher per-person healthcare costs. Medicine can achieve more now than ever, but it can’t replace patient care. And with significant staff shortages and hospital waiting times currently at their ‘worst-ever level’, more needs to be done with fewer resources. This is where new technologies, including automation and AI, can play a crucial role.

The power to revolutionise

Automation, and specifically Robotic Process Automation (RPA), could bring huge changes and benefits to the healthcare sector. It holds great potential to improve the quality of health and patient care currently delivered. Any task or process that is repetitive, time-consuming, requires little decision-making or no human interaction is suitable for automation. In a nutshell, many of the tasks that GP practices, hospitals and walk-in centres deal with on a daily basis can be automated, to free up resources for front-line healthcare delivery. This includes handling inventory tracking and supply chain streamlining, processing claims and billing, and supporting online platforms that gather together appointment scheduling and medical records.

McKinsey research shows that healthcare has a 36% automation potential – which could result in substantial savings in terms of time and expenditure for the NHS, while increasing accuracy. However, we are only scratching the surface when it comes to automation – which must change in the near future. RPA could help create a more efficient healthcare system, raising value-based patient care at lower costs and increased efficiency. Its effectiveness is already being recognised in biopharma, where it is speeding up many administrative and back office processes. It’s helping to increase the accuracy of research by replacing human intervention (also reducing error), expediting regulatory compliance and driving up the quality of operations. All of these outcomes are tangible, and it’s fair to say that in biopharma settings, automation is already saving lives, as well as resources.

Automation also enhances efficiency in the long term. When strategically deployed, it can remove one of the health sector’s more persistent pain points: namely the need to support or replace legacy systems that don’t work with more modern solutions. Perhaps most importantly, automation frees up clinical staff to do what no software can ever do – care for patients in a humane and unhurried way. Freed from a plethora of repetitive tasks, doctors and nurses can better fulfil their vocations to care for vulnerable people.

The future of healthcare

In a speech made at NHS Expo 2018, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock commented that UK hospitals operate dozens of systems that ‘don’t talk to each other’. The net result, he comments, is not just scarce resources wasted, but countless hours of clinical staff spent trying to work broken systems, patients being given sub-optimal care because the systems didn’t communicate, and ultimately lives are lost. “Our doctors, nurses, GPs, pharmacists, our patients, should all have easy access to the best tools that technology can give them,” he points out, “and our systems need to be able to talk to each other.”

This underlines the need for the healthcare sector to deploy automation wherever possible, in order to be efficient and clinically effective. With that access also comes the need for training: new technologies are only as good as the people using them, and with automation set to reshape healthcare, those working in the sector will need to learn to work alongside automated software systems – which will offer new opportunities and become an enabler for career progression in today’s increasingly digital workplace. 

Breaking down tech barriers

While the NHS is not a directly-governed single entity, but a series of connected bodies, the value of having such an automation advocate, with extensive NHS experience, should not be underestimated. It will ensure that some of the chief barriers to tech-led efficiency that currently plague the NHS – namely, lack of interoperability between units and systems, legacy software and a failure to scale successful local automation projects to a national level – are broken down. 

With the NHS staggering under the weight of multiple burdens – cuts in social care, increased use of A&E and rising costs adding to the recurrent issues of an ageing population and lifestyle changes – it’s time for the healthcare sector to act, before our beloved NHS becomes overwhelmed. Ultimately, RPA and other automation technologies will help create a more efficient healthcare system, with benefits being felt by millions across the nation.

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