NHS IT, Records and Data

12.12.18

The robots are here at East Suffolk and North Essex

Source: NHE Nov/Dec 2018

Lauren Hockney, senior communications officer at East Suffolk and North Essex NHS FT (ESNEFT), outlines how her trust is embracing the digital and automation revolution.

Robots have arrived at the ESNEFT, and they are giving back hundreds of hours to staff so they can spend more time helping patients.

The trust, which includes Colchester and Ipswich hospitals and seven community hospitals in Suffolk and North Essex, is the first in the UK to use robotic process automation (RPA) to support employees in their everyday roles.

Five virtual workers are now handling admin-style tasks at Ipswich Hospital, including GP referrals in neurology. The robot monitors the electronic referral system and when a new one arrives, it gathers key clinical data and downloads several documents which it then records ready for clinical review.

This was previously carried out by medical secretaries, who had to print out all the documents before scanning each one into the hospital’s electronic system – a process which could take between 10 and 20 minutes per referral, and 2,000 are received every week.

Those secretaries now have more time to talk to patients and deal with their queries. It’s also a 24/7 process, so for the first time, referrals are also dealt with at weekends.

ESNEFT’s deputy director of ICT, Darren Atkins, commented: “What we were looking for here at the trust was a flexible platform which we could use internally to build automation processes.

“We were keen to adopt technology that would offer flexibility, but also provide a range of tools to maximise the benefits that any automation can bring.

“It’s giving time back to people to allow them to do the job they are here to do, leaving the mundane work to the robots.

“The use of virtual worker technology has allowed us to engage with frontline staff in a positive way by making time matter and effectively creating a culture of virtual buddies.”

RPA is now being used in cardiology, urology, neurology, nephrology and haematology – currently at Ipswich only. 

Since 23 July, the robots have processed thousands of referrals, releasing more than 500 hours of secretarial time.

These benefits will continue to increase as other areas of specialty – which could include clinical coding, HR processes, and service desks – are added to the programme. It is estimated the introduction of automation at the trust saves £220,000 a year.

Tasks or processes suited for automation are:

  • Repetitive;
  • Involve a high number of transactions;
  • Time-consuming;
  • Require very little decision-making;
  • Require no human interaction.

Automation can also be applied to a part of a larger end-to-end process to make time matter, a philosophy which is at the heart of the trust’s ethos to make the hospital experience less stressful for patients and which gives time back to staff so they can do their jobs more effectively.

The accuracy and speed of the robots has been welcomed by clinical neurology medical secretary Chris Harvey: “It took a lot of man-hours, so it’s the time that we have saved – and paper, we’ve probably saved a few trees.

“We can be on the phones, writing letters or talking to patients; we’re more available. It gives you more time to be doing all the other things you have to do.”

Dr Petr Pokorny, staff grade neurologist, added: “If the secretaries have more time, they can use it for other things.

“It’s more efficient and practical; there’s a more fluent flow of work. It’s easier to have five referrals to deal with every morning rather than a huge pile of 35 once a week!

“You save time, you save money and there’s less risk of something being lost from a pile of paper.”

 

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