The NHS continues to face colossal pressure, with the pandemic having long-term impacts on the healthcare sector. Where firefighting has been the focus over the last year, a multitude of postponed non-Covid related consultations, procedures, and surgeries have resulted in a significant backlog for the NHS. In fact, there were almost 4.6 million people on hospital waiting lists according to December 2020 figures. Whilst the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown signals light at the end of the tunnel, we aren’t out of the woods just yet. Now is the time to drive the NHS forward into a state of recovery, with optimum efficiency and the right tools being the fuel needed to succeed.
Digital acceleration has already jumped to the top of everyone’s priority lists, and 2020 witnessed a huge 660 percent increase in patients using NHS login accounts to access digital health and care services. This has played a massive role in alleviating the demand on NHS employees. Trusts have also been a significant help during the vaccine rollout, with some developing support apps designed to help with consent and appointment reminders. But in terms of what is achievable through technology, healthcare has barely scratched the surface.
Renovation through automation
This includes intelligent automation, which will be instrumental in not only the growth and development of the NHS, but in its overall success in caring for its patients. Though the UK’s vaccination plan is well underway, healthcare will soon be faced with the realities of a huge patient backlog, which will require streamlined internal processes to overcome. In this situation, outdated and manual administrative processes simply will not suffice. When broken down, the importance of this digital transformation becomes clear: every letter that is posted is money that could be spent on patient care. And every missed appointment is an opportunity wasted to provide that care.
The rapid nature of the pandemic and the pressure on the NHS left little time to streamline internal processes, and so the use of spreadsheets and other manual processes proliferated purely as a means of keeping up. Moving forward, however, these inflexible processes, especially those that are prone to human error, must now be replaced with a long-term solution that is underpinned by intelligent and automated technologies. The time has been and gone for healthcare providers to consider and contemplate the ways in which automation can help improve efficiency. Now is the time to act – and fast. Every NHS Trust should be examining processes to prioritize what can, and should, be automated and taken off over-stretched human workers. In addition to the high-level patient and employee-focused processes, this includes going back to basics and utilizing RPA and low-code to automate tasks such as invoicing processing, back-office administration, and operations across various departments. Not only will this increase efficiency and help alleviate patient backlogs, but it will also give healthcare staff more time to focus on what really matters: patient care.
Bringing the dream team – RPA and low-code – to healthcare
Whilst RPA alone can provide organizations with an array of benefits, these results can be enhanced through the use of Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) technologies such as low-code. These two technologies can work in complete harmony, with RPA handling the tasks and low-code managing the processes, enabling healthcare providers to redistribute resources and increase focus on patient care.
The main benefit of PaaS technologies – particularly low-code – is the speed in which it can deliver solutions to help alleviate healthcare pressures, such as appointment backlogs and fast-paced vaccine rollouts – especially given the need to administer the vaccine in two doses. Its ease of use means that everyday users can develop processes and take ideas from concept to reality with minimal IT intervention, in minimal time. This is particularly important in a rapidly evolving landscape where new government guidelines (for example, around vaccination timelines) are requiring new decisions and process changes to be made on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Organizations have even been able to advance the use and benefits of RPA, with one Belgium hospital incorporating it in the review process of patient records for dispensing prescription medication.
One of the main areas the RPA and low-code partnership excels in is within healthcare call and appointment booking centers. Previously, advisors would have to navigate multiple systems simultaneously whilst also engaging with patients on the phone. The effort and time taken to input the information would naturally detract focus from the caller. This is where low-code and RPA can help deliver quality and efficiency benefits, as they are able to navigate those systems and automate processes on behalf of advisors while they deal with the more emotional and human side of interactions.
Shifting patient expectations
Patient communication preferences have also been in a great deal of flux during the pandemic. Whilst there has been a big – and forced – shift towards digital engagement, the majority of healthcare patients generally see tech as something to supplement, not replace, face-to-face interaction. Now, however, preference has shifted again, with most people wanting to steer clear of surgeries and hospitals where possible, from fear of infection. When considering the best communication channels, healthcare staff need to be mindful of the demographic of patients requiring the most attention and ensure that communication channels are accessible to all. For example, the elderly, who may be less digitally adept, might struggle with video consultations. Telephone and text messaging services, therefore, continue to be vital lifelines for many, particularly in situations of high-level patient engagement, such as waiting list applications. In fact, research has already shown that UK citizens agree the telephone has been a crucial communication method during the pandemic.
Businesses should also consider voice messaging as a key area that could be developed. Whilst automated phone responses may be effective in freeing up staff, they can seem impersonal. Overall, people respond better to people, especially when their health is involved. Instead of interacting with a robotic voice, recorded messages could allow patients to interact with a human voice, offering reassurance that someone is at the other end of the line and ready to help.
Intelligent automation is the future of healthcare
The combined journey of health and technology is progressing on many different paths. The NHS’ new Patient and Healthcare Communications and Related IT Services Framework is evidence of this journey, but there is still a long way to go. Technological developments are front and center in many other industries, ranging from automated insurance claims handling to proactive notification in delivery services. The time has come for the healthcare industry to embrace the same level of technological innovation. This is where automation comes in, as it can assist in helping create joined-up patient journeys. Aided by technology, it is these strong patient connections that will bring patients and healthcare providers closer together and propel the NHS forward.
Richard Farrell, Chief Innovation Officer, Netcall