The rationale and drivers for greater automation within the NHS are beyond argument – increased demand for services, frozen or shrinking budgets and crippling skills shortages. Add in the often shockingly slow and inefficient processes which are such a drain on staff time and morale and a barrier to improved service delivery, and it’s little wonder that digitisation has become such a holy grail for successive Governments and senior NHS leaders.
As we all know, the narrative around IT in the NHS to date has been one of high profile failures, a lack of collaboration and transparency and millions of pounds of taxpayer money going to waste.
However, there are signs that the tide is turning. At all levels of the NHS, people are waking up to the potential for technology, and in particular AI and Intelligent Automation, to deliver huge benefits to all stakeholders – leaders, staff and patients.
Intelligent Automation - where Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology is integrated with AI – now offers NHS Trusts, and the NHS itself at a national level, a golden opportunity to transform services, drive improvements in care and ensure a more stable and sustainable future. Indeed, The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) estimates that automation could save the NHS £12.5bn per year.
Pockets of automation excellence
Without doubt, there is a genuine buzz about automation within many Trusts at the moment.
As a pioneer of Intelligent Automation technology within the NHS, having led a highly successful programme at East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT) over the past two years, we’ve seen first-hand the benefits that process automation can deliver.
We’ve been able to streamline and optimize a range of processes across all areas of the Trust, from GP referrals and re-assigning cancelled appointments to reduce Did Not Attend (DNA) rates, through to HR and finance. We’ve delivered compelling results on each occasion, more than 36,000 hours in just 18 months, whether that be more joined-up, faster patient care, more capacity and breathing space for over-stretched frontline staff or reduced costs.
However, I would be lying if I said it had been easy. It has taken a huge amount of effort and perseverance from my team to develop these automations so that they deliver maximum value to the Trust and to roll them out in a controlled and strategic way.
As part of my job, I spend a lot of time meeting and networking with leaders from many Trusts around the country and have become aware of other pockets of automation excellence dotted around the NHS, within a handful of Trusts. Much like my own team, these teams are delivering huge benefits to their Trusts, improving patient care, staff satisfaction and morale, whilst also saving much-needed money.
However, whilst these results are impressive at a Trust-level, what has become increasingly apparent is the huge opportunity to scale these efforts to a broader, cross-Trust level. Indeed, if automation is to deliver on its very real promise and transform service delivery within the NHS and public service more broadly, we need a more joined-up, open approach.
A collaborative approach to Intelligent Automation
As many of us will know, the distinct lack of a centralised approach to NHS IT and procurement makes it very challenging for Trusts to work together on particular technology or innovation programmes. The result is too often a duplication of focus and work, with Trusts and teams working in silos, and rarely sharing learnings and successes with their counterparts in other Trusts.
We simply cannot allow this to happen within automation, not if we want rapid and scalable adoption across the NHS to free up vital skills and improve patient care. Instead, we need a more collaborative, supportive environment, where Trusts can learn from one another, share experiences, work together and benefit from each other’s successes.
This is why I have launched the NHS Digital Exchange (DX), a collaborative platform allowing NHS Trusts to freely share their automation work in a safe and secure way.
Importantly, the platform allows NHS Trusts free access to existing process automations which have been built and are now being successfully deployed within other Trusts. So, for instance, other Trusts will be able to benefit from the work we’ve done at ESNEFT and, similarly, we’ll be able to take automations that have been developed elsewhere and re-deploy them within ESNEFT.
Already, the Digital Exchange comprises of more than 40 processes and objects, all available to any NHS Trusts that signs up to the Blue Prism Cloud platform. The automations are already customised to access common NHS systems, including System C Medway, Kainos Evolve, Electronic Referral System ERS, Lorenzo, TRAC, NHS Jobs, Somerset Cancer Registry, ESR, SystmOne and Integra. All content on the marketplace is developed and owned by the NHS, and its use is strictly restricted to NHS bodies.
The automations, relating to both front and back-office processes, can be used by other NHS Trusts either in whole or part to speed up the deployment process without the need to start designing and building from scratch. It means that Trusts can quickly and easily begin reaping the benefits of digital labour alongside their existing workforce. It is the first time that NHS Trusts will be able to share automations in this way and Blue Prism Cloud has designed the Digital Exchange to drive greater collaboration between Trusts and increase benefits across the NHS.
A full library of artefacts contained in the NHS Digital Exchange will be published on my blog www.somethingincredible.co.uk
A blueprint for future, widescale automation
The intention is to create a vibrant, internal marketplace where all Trusts are collaborating to streamline and optimise the most critical processes within the NHS. The ethos is one of transparency, partnership and sharing.
The reaction to the Digital Exchange has been unequivocally positive. There is a genuine appetite amongst automation and IT leaders across the NHS to work together to find solutions to the biggest challenges facing our organisations and our workforces.
We hope that this becomes the foundation for highly engaged Trusts to share, collaborate and inspire one another to push the boundaries of what is possible.
After all, it is in all of our interests – NHS leaders, staff and patients – for NHS Trusts to work together to realise the full benefits that Intelligent Automation can deliver across the NHS, as quickly as possible. If we can do this, then we’ll be giving ourselves the very best chance of overcoming many of the major budgetary and skills-related challenges we face today.
On Friday 21st February at 2pm I will be hosting an open house online webinar to introduce the NHS Digital Exchange. Everyone and anyone is welcome!
If anyone needs any help, advice or assistance, please feel free to reach out to me.