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Patients, people and processes: Topol on Transformation at the NHS

  • David Biden
  • Feb 16, 2019

The Topol Review, an independent review concerning preparations for the NHS’s ‘digital future’, was released earlier this month. It shines a light on the potential of robotic process automation to make a dramatic difference in NHS staff’s ability to care for a population living longer than ever before.

The review certainly makes for interesting reading, touching on the fact that we are living longer as a society, with a greater dependence on healthcare systems, and the changes we need to make to account for this. The wide-ranging report covers many elements of the NHS’s digital transformation, from genomics to the use of smartphones.

Automation over admin

Obviously I was reading keenly from a human+ perspective too, and I was interested to see that there were some particularly revealing statistics around robotic process automation and its capacity to deliver real change in the UK’s healthcare system. The review states:

“AI technologies and automation can also help the NHS manage the increasing demands on its staff. One of the game-changing uses of AI will be the automation of administrative processes. Currently, between 15 and 70 per cent of a clinician’s working time is spent on administrative tasks.”

I think we’d all agree that clinical staff spending 70% of their time battling with spreadsheets is not an ideal state of affairs. In an ideal world, care-givers would be able to focus on just that – providing care to patients. There are far-reaching benefits to technology that would drastically reduce that percentage. Less stress, less human error in high volume data-inputting tasks, and more face to face interaction for patients. Topol zeroes in on this concept of putting NHS staff’s ‘cognitive power’ to best use:

“A benefit of systematically implementing AI and robotics in the NHS will be the automation of tasks viewed as mundane or repetitive that do not require much human cognitive power. Additionally, AI or robotics may automate tasks that go beyond human analytical or physical capabilities. Both of these applications of AI will leave the workforce to focus on tasks considered ‘uniquely human’, especially human-to-human interaction and care.”

Sensible steps to success

So what are the barriers to adoption? The review splits them down into the following:

  • Time and willingness to adopt new tech

  • Understanding of the new systems

  • Workplace support to maximise impact

  • End-user needs being met

I found it reassuring in some ways that in this regard, healthcare is not drastically different from other industries and their route to adopting RPA. Yes, the benefits are there to be realised, but it’s not a question of flipping a switch and seeing those recognised. Instead, organisations need to engage their workforce to make sure the most important parts of the process – people – are happy and confident with new processes. Involving the employees who will be working alongside the ‘bots as early as possible is a must. It means that people welcome bots because they understand how they will make their jobs easier, rather than being suspicious or unaware of a technology often perceived as a threat.

Topol has some strong ideas on how this can be achieved:

“Clinicians and healthcare scientists who are passionate about progressing the adoption of digital healthcare technologies and keen to develop a specialist interest should be valued and supported to do so. Flexible ongoing training and career opportunities should be made available to those clinicians and healthcare scientists. […] Joint learning programmes involving components from computer science, robotics and engineering should be made available to healthcare students at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.”

We say end-user, you say…

Patient. Of all the humans involved in the process of RPA adoption, NHS patients are top of the tree when it comes to considering impact. In my opinion, if their experience is made smoother, quicker and more efficient as a result of RPA taking away time-consuming admin from doctors and nurses, then what better sign of success is there? If the introduction of RPA isn’t having an ultimate impact on patient experience, then the system needs review, however well it may be working in a vacuum.

David Biden

David has trained and mentored many individuals and believes the best leaders are great teachers.