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NHS England - Transformation Directorate

Creating value through robotic process automation (RPA)

With the pressure COVID-19 has put on our healthcare system, it is more important than ever to explore new technologies that have the potential to ease operations and free up NHS and social care staff time so they can focus on caring for people. This is where robotic process automation (RPA) could be of particular help.

RPA is software that uses virtual workers (robots) to perform and automate repetitive administrative tasks. Sometimes referred to as the technology that “takes the robot out of the human”, RPA is an essential tool for many different industries, and could be for health and care too. It allows them to offload manual processes and support their human workforce. It can potentially provide local organisations with immediate productivity gains, near zero error rates, reduced operational costs, and the opportunity to increase the quality of patient care.

To gain a deeper understanding of the RPA landscape across the NHS and Social Care, I have met a number of incredible NHS home-grown RPA experts who have revolutionised their organisations by carefully and safely automating up to 25% of their corporate and clinical services. They have shared with me their success stories about how use of this technology has impacted their organisations’ productivity, especially during the pandemic. 

For example, I recently spoke with Darren Atkins, the chief technology officer of East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust. He took me through a number of his automation projects, such as cancelling unwanted patient appointments, automating GP referrals, and recently using robots to register COVID-19 antibody testing, which has helped his trust to save over 82,000 hours of time. I have learnt how automating GP referrals has saved his organisation over £220k by reducing referral processing time from 25 minutes to 5 minutes. Stephen Slough, the chief information officer, and Paul Wyman, an RPA architect, at NHS Dorset CCG met me virtually to share their successes. Paul has automated COVID-19 antibody testing for Social Care staff across Dorset CCG and booked over 2,473 antibody tests appointments over a 2 weeks period.

We are working alongside other national parties such as the NHS Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab to understand how RPA can co-exist with AI in a collaborative manner. RPA has the potential to be game-changing technology as not only could it improve patient care and save money, but also improve productivity and increase staff and patient satisfaction. 

Yet despite having a number of successful and promising local use cases across the country, it is clear there are still barriers to widespread adoption and use. At NHSX we want to support health and care organisations to adopt modern technology that can reduce the burden on their staff and free up time to focus on patients.

The current RPA landscape across users and suppliers in the NHS and Social Care isn’t well understood. That is why we are reaching out to current and potential RPA users in the NHS and social care as well as digital innovators working in the RPA area, to fill out a new survey (which closes on 5 October 2020). The survey will enable us to deepen our knowledge of the needs of local organisations so we can explore ways to jointly innovate and align on what success looks like. In addition, we also need to know about any challenges and barriers industry colleagues are facing so that we can collaborate better to assist the NHS and Social Care to embrace the right tools and technologies. 

Now more than ever, we need to support the NHS and social care to implement new technologies to readdress the balance of care versus administrative work, saving precious time that could be used for direct patient care. We hope to develop an exciting roadmap for RPA across Health and Social Care in the coming months and your feedback will help steer that agenda. Please respond to and share the survey and get in touch if you would like to share your success stories.