Craig Kilgour (Robotic Automation Lead) and Sarah Thompson (Business Analyst) from NHS Arden & GEM CSU explain how robotic process automation (RPA) is helping to strengthen cyber security, improve accuracy and pave the way for more flexible working in the latest issue of National Health Executive.
RPA has already become an important tool in helping the NHS work more efficiently and effectively, both in corporate functions and in clinical delivery. Essential to its success is understanding where it is most likely to deliver benefits, and investing time upfront to work through and refine the desired process and outcomes to ensure it is fit for purpose.
RPA lends itself to processes which are highly manual, repetitive and rule-based, where inputs are in a readable electronic and standardised format and have a low rate of exception. A good test is whether a process feels painfully repetitive and, while high volumes aren’t a requirement, that’s often where the biggest efficiency gains can be made. A good example of this is daily financial reporting which often has to be completed by a particular time or deadline. The regular downloading, combining and uploading of transaction and payroll reports can be automated, resulting in significant time savings and ensuring the right information is ready at the right time for finance teams to analyse.
The most obvious benefits of RPA come in the form of efficiency savings. For example, we worked with an NHS Registration Authority, responsible for providing smart card access to NHS Spine information systems, to generate robotic automation of monthly reporting activities. The process was developed following a detailed mapping of the Registration Authority’s five stage workflow and associated requirements and is now delivering efficient automated reporting which has released time savings of 450 hours per year.
But advantages are not limited to time savings. RPA can improve accuracy, which is one of the benefits now being realised by the specialised commissioning pharmacy team within the NHS England Midlands region. The team is tasked with ensuring best value in relation to high cost drugs (HCDs), which includes a monthly drugs challenge process, requiring two sets of reports: a spend vs allocation report and a financial adjustments report. These reporting processes involved line by line transfer of data from multiple downloaded sources which was not only manually intensive, but also risked human error in the transfer of files. The new automated process has eliminated that risk as well as freeing up resource to focus on more value added tasks such as data analysis.
RPA has also been instrumental in strengthening cyber security across NHS organisations in Lincolnshire, Derby and Essex, as well as within our own organisation. We have implemented RPA to identify weak passwords and prompt users to update them based on an agreed set of rules. This has resulted in a quicker, more efficient and accurate process. Nearly 80% of users updated their password following the prompt, significantly increasing system security.
Perhaps surprisingly, RPA can even help improve patient experience through more efficient appointment scheduling and registration process, and can enable more flexible ways of working for staff. Instead of team members having to be in the office to run reports on specific days, automation can do a lot of the time sensitive reporting, giving staff more flexibility about their work patterns.
There are often barriers to overcome when identifying opportunities for RPA. The biggest obstacle is often a fear that RPA will lead to job losses. In our experience, that has not been the case. What RPA has done is allowed people to focus on the parts of their job which require human intervention or specialist skills, which is where they can add most value. In the case of the specialised commissioning pharmacy team, many of the tasks being performed require pharmacy skills as well as analytical skills. By removing the need to spend time on the more time-intensive but repetitive tasks, skilled clinicians can focus their time on the elements that require their expertise.
Trust in the process is another challenge. ‘How will I know if it’s working?’ is a common query. This is down to how the automation is developed in the first place and should follow a robust lifecycle to ensure the process is fit for purpose and regularly reviewed. Many of our projects are clinically led and developed through an iterative process. Clinicians walk through every stage, agreeing the approach, testing, reporting and success criteria. Importantly, clinical and business management teams are fully trained on how they work and encouraged to take ownership of monitoring and reporting. This is overlaid with ongoing testing, maintenance and assurance from IT, but putting ownership with the teams benefiting from the process encourages continuous improvement as processes change and develop.
RPA isn’t a panacea – its use is limited to specific types of processes and like any process, it needs to be maintained. But at a time when resources in the NHS are so stretched, we should all be considering opportunities to automate repetitive tasks that are time intensive. Based on the benefits delivered to date, there is real potential to improve efficiency and accuracy, while giving staff the opportunity to make better use of their skills.
This article was originally published in National Health Executive and can be accessed here.