NHS England - Transformation Directorate

Digital productivity

Accelerating the adoption of evidence-based digital tools to improve productivity across the NHS and social care

Welcome to the Digital Productivity programme

Digital productivity means working smarter, not harder. Our Digital Productivity programme aims to accelerate the adoption of evidence-based digital tools to improve productivity across the NHS and deliver care and treatments to more patients, improve the quality of care, reduce the burden on the workforce, save time, lower costs, reduce waste, and increase patient and staff satisfaction. The programme aims to support HMT’s target to achieve commitments on digitally enabled care in the NHS Long Term Plan and realise the Secretary of State for Health’s Tech Vision. Key projects within the programme include Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Real Time Locating Systems/Radio Frequency Identification (RTLS/RFID) and Extended Reality technologies (XR).

We are enabling scale and spread of productivity-improving technology across the health and care system by providing organisations with:

  • evidence-led good practice and buyers guidance
  • financial support via the Unified Tech Fund and Digital Productivity Fund
  • access to communities of practice
  • a comprehensive library of evidence and case studies

Why we need digital productivity technology

Digital productivity technology enables our health and care system to address the current challenges faced due to increasing demand by:

  • delivering care and treatments to more patients, more efficiently
  • saving time
  • lowering costs
  • reducing waste
  • improving data quality and analytics
  • increasing patient satisfaction
  • increasing staff wellbeing

Explore our digital productivity programmes

We work to accelerate the adoption of proven technologies across the NHS, including robotic process automation (RPA), radio frequency identification (RFID) and extended reality (XR). Case studies worldwide have evidenced their potential to augment and support, not replace, health care professionals by enabling them to provide the best level of care.

Discover more about our work - including the potential benefit across the NHS and resources available - by clicking on the boxes below.

Robotic process automation (RPA)

Join our RPA community or practice here or read more about our achievements, plans and aspirations for robotic process automation here.

Reducing inefficiencies using RPA

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a form of business process automation using software robots (also known as digital workers) that quickly and accurately interact with the “back end” and the “front end” of a system, meaning it’s able to mimic everything a human can do, such as opening documents, clicking, and typing, etc. RPA can run 24 hours a day, any day of the week, and allows data to be transacted between systems, databases, digital forms or even many Microsoft Office products. Think of automations like additional team members, here to support your existing team.

By automating stable, rule-based, repetitive processes that require standard input, you can repurpose the time otherwise spent, and fully focus on high-value or high priority activities, such as complex strategising, or face-to-face interactions. RPA can support many functions, and our team can help you understand which processes are likely to benefit from RPA.

The benefits of RPA

Robotic process automation has proven it can release health care professionals from administrative tasks and reduce operational costs. It can also improve quality and compliance using proactive record management. For example, used in HR and recruitment, it can increase efficiency by:

  • Increasing the productivity of recruitment staff
  • Reducing vacancies by filling positions faster and more efficiently, finding candidates quicker, and improving staff retention due to increased staff satisfaction and wellbeing
  • Speeding up the onboarding process
  • Reducing costs by lowering the need for temporary bank and agency staff

Identifying automation opportunities

Select processes that:

  • Require improvement / could be better (like regular Master data file updates)
  • Are time consuming or time critical (like repetitive monthly reports and procedures)
  • Are high volume and frequent (like extracting, capturing, and filing data)
  • Are logical and rules based (like matching up or alignment of data sets)

Identify where your team is:

  • Gathering data from multiple sources / systems (like capturing new starter information from their application)
  • Transferring data from one system to another (like setting up a new starter across multiple systems)
  • Checking data consistency (like checking you’ve entered the correct data)
  • Updating identical data across multiple systems (like setting up new starters in various NHS systems)

RPA case studies

Selected to become an NHS Centre of Excellence (CoE), Northampton General Hospital’s Automation Accelerator programme has identified over 500 viable automation opportunities across multiple NHS organisations. The potential automation ideas are projected to repurpose around 115,000 hours per year - that’s over half a million hours over the next 5 years. This is expected to greatly increase as more Trusts work with the CoE.

Blackpool Teaching Hospitals streamlined and automated their new Single Point of Discharge (SPoD) service for hospital patients. The integrated solution allowed hospital nursing staff to make a single, simple referral to the SPoD where the patient is reviewed, triaged and signposted into the most appropriate downstream out-of-hospital service. As a result, they:

  • Reduced rekeying of data between systems
  • Improved referral quality and accuracy
  • Reduced discharge delays
  • Reductions in length of stay in hospital

West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust used robotic process automation (RPA) to streamline outpatient updates and e-prescribing by integrating kiosks with patient administrative systems (PAS) through a proof of concept. Processing around 500 appointments per day, the automation automatically updates the PAS with patient check-ins and any changes made. This released receptionists from manually transferring data between two systems, and saved clinicians time by automatically notifying them of patient arrivals.

RPA resources

If you work in the NHS, you can access resources about RPA on the Future NHS RPA Community of Practice. Examples of resources include:

  • an introduction to RPA
  • case studies and good practice guidance, providing you with tried and tested approaches
  • guidance on how the technology should be used
  • forums to connect and collaborate with peers
Extended reality (XR) technologies

If you would like to get involved, you can join our XR community of practice here or read more about our achievements, plans and aspirations for XR here.

XR discovery: opportunities within the NHS

XR is an umbrella term for immersive technologies that blend the digital world with the real world. This can be on a small scale - like visual overlays that interact with your current, real environment - to entire simulated worlds. Examples of XR technologies include assisted reality, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR).

The digital productivity team has carried out discovery work to understand how the NHS and social care can safely use extended reality technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality, and maximise its benefits. This has helped us understand the current use of XR in health, identify current and future opportunity areas and inform guidance on the infrastructure needed to support this.

Our work involves generating real-world evidence for the NHS and managing a community that supports sharing of knowledge and best practice between health and care providers, technology suppliers and innovators, arms length bodies and research organisations. We have been collating evidence and insights to highlight the benefits of using virtual or extended reality to improve patient experience and reduce pressure on care, whilst building recommendations for good practice.

The benefits of XR

Our team has been working to understand the capabilities of XR, and its current use in the NHS and healthcare internationally. We found that XR was being used in a multitude of ways across the NHS and social care. The top four areas using XR were:

  • Education and training for patients and staff
  • Mental health and wellbeing
  • Physiotherapy and rehabilitation
  • Pain management

Other areas such as 3D visualisation of images or scans for pre-surgical planning, image guided surgeries and remote connections (for example for community nurses) were also mentioned.

The benefits associated with XR across these areas included:

  • saving staff time
  • improving staff experience
  • increasing accessibility
  • improving efficiency of services
  • increased positive patient outcomes

These benefits align with key commitments outlined in the NHS 2022-23 business plan around delivery of more elective care, improving mental health services for everyone, and improving productivity across the health system.

XR case studies

There are multiple use cases and case studies that evidence the benefits and potential of XR across health and care, including some within the NHS. In 2019 Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust completed a study involving immersive VR treatment of children with autism related phobias, with results showing that nearly 45% of patients remained phobia free six months after treatment.

At East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust trainee doctors are using virtual reality training equipment to practise endoscopy skills in an immersive and realistic way. Teachers are able to accurately assess students’ progress with the aim of maximising patient safety in real operations.

NHS North Lincolnshire CCG has leveraged XR to improve the retention rates of patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD). This has boosted patients’ independence and enabled patients to be treated more quickly. The CCG also hopes that this technology will reduce hospital visits. You can find out more here about how NHS Lincolnshire CCG used virtual reality.

Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust’s Digital Futures programme allows staff to be exposed to digital technology and empowers them to develop their own digital solutions within patient pathways, to improve patient experience and support health outcomes. So far, this includes the use of mixed reality headsets for remote consultation for breast wound care, and virtual reality to distract from pain or anxiety in toenail removal surgery. This has saved the trust £40,000 a year compared to traditional delivery of care. The program is also developing digital solutions in adolescent mental health and intensive care rehabilitation pathways and remote multiple sclerosis consultations.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) or Real Time Location Services (RTLS)

Join our RFID / RTLS community of practice (FutureNHS) here, or read more about our achievements, plans and aspirations for RFID / RTLS here.

Improving standards of care and managing inventory using radio frequency identification (RFID)

RFID and RTLS can support health and care organisations with:

  • medical device tracking
  • stock and inventory management
  • patient flow management

Key benefits identified by successful sites include lower costs - associated with reductions in waste, over ordering and lost items - improved patient and staff experience, and time saved.

RFID case studies

Passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging at East Kent Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has led to less time spent looking for medical devices, reduced delays to patient care, and improved employee and patient experience. You can read more here about how East Kent Hospitals used radio frequency identification.

Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH) has implemented medical equipment tracking using RFID. This enables automated reporting for clinical engineers and delivers significant time savings. The target for “average time taken to supply a device to a ward” was 30 minutes: the use of RFID has reduced this average to just 12 minutes, and audit times reduced from 90 minutes to just 8 minutes per ward. This efficiency has led to improved device utilisation and a better patient experience.

Our digital productivity journey: achievements, plans and aspirations

Our Digital Productivity programme aims to accelerate the adoption of evidence-based digital tools to improve productivity across the NHS and deliver care and treatments to more patients, improve the quality of care, reduce the burden on the workforce, save time, lower costs, reduce waste, and increase patient and staff satisfaction. Find out more below about the achievements, plans and future aspirations for our key projects within the programme, including Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Real Time Locating Systems/Radio Frequency Identification (RTLS/RFID) and Extended Reality Technologies (XR).

Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

Aim: to improve robotic process automation capability across as many NHS services as possible by 2024.

  • Our achievements

    • Distributed £7.5 million to RPA projects across 32 sites through the Unified Tech Fund (UTF) 
    • Published the first National RPA Guidance on designing, sustaining and delivering automation within healthcare, and developed user-experience videos
    • Developed National RPA Community of Practice for the public sector, sharing knowledge and best practice. Join here.
    • Commissioned two Centre of Excellence pilot sites (The Royal Free London and Northampton General Hospital) to spread their knowledge and expertise by automating 42 processes in 21 organisations within 12 weeks
    • Published a Global Digital Exemplar Blueprint built by Northampton General Hospital, to demonstrate the improved workflow via automation across multiple NHS trusts, along with their learnings and recommendations
    • Conducted the discovery work for Primary Care and Intelligent Automation (IA), to gain insight on IA capability with the NHS and investigate how quality of care can be improved through the application of IA
    • Distributed £6.2million to RPA projects through The Elective Recovery Transformation Investment Fund with £4.5m dedicated to Midlands region RPA accelerator
    • Established a new board. Executive Sponsor Tim Ferris, chaired by Caroline Clarke CEO Royal Free Hospitals
    • Develop the first e-learning programme - the first of its kind - for NHS staff in association with Health Education England (HEE)
  • Our delivery plans (2022/23)

    • Developing first RPA e-learning programme for the NHS staff in association with HEE and ELFH
    • Generating evidence of impact from applications of RPA from the UTF sites over the next 2 years, to track the benefits of implementation
    • Publishing RPA Blueprints in collaboration with UTF sites to demonstrate how optimisation of processes is achieved through RPA, along with learnings and recommendations
    • Developing an open source RPA repository on GitHub, where public sector organisations can freely share and obtain codes for various processes across multiple vendors
    • Developing a robust plan for Diagnostics. Prioritising Imaging, Pathology and Community Diagnostics Centres capability for automated scheduling and booking, mapping and baselining potential by October 22
    • Smashing our target deliverable of 40% coverage in 2022, every ICS has automation capability covering MH, community, ambulance, primary care and acute sectors
    • Established the whole region RPA Accelerator programme. 11 ICSs, 1000 organisations reach of opportunity. 65 processes developed across elective recovery, clinical admin and back office functions. First regional approach led by the Midlands Region.
    • Develop the New Hospital Programme where Blueprints automation capability is a core architecture solution in the footprint for enabling transformation
  • Our future aspirations (2023 onwards)

    • Enabling major digital transformation programmes through RPA, including People Digital Strategy and Diagnostics Programme delivery
    • Accelerating the spread of RPA technologies across the system, aiming for at least 40% of Integrated Care Boards to have RPA capabilities by 2023/24
    • Using Kirkpatrick’s methodology to evaluate the first national RPA training programme
    • Continue the growth of the RPA Community of Practice as a key tool for knowledge sharing and networking
    • Intelligent automation discovery, unlocking the potential for intelligent automation capabilities as the evolution of RPA, including natural language processing, optical character recognition, speech recognition, ambient and sentient capabilities and machine learning.
    • Support the Elective recovery programme. Unlocking the potential of automation within clinical admin and elective services, collaborating across the system of experts to achieve the national objectives
    • Accelerate automation update in HR. Collaborating with the People Directorate to showcase the opportunities for automation with HR functions, supporting the HR and OD Plan
    • Continue with extensive communications and engagement plans. Ensuring the enablement of automation capabilities to be maximised across healthcare,. Partake in external events to showcase the tech and raise awareness of its value.
    • Develop the 2023-25 plans for Intelligent Automation. As set out in our 5 year roadmap, evolving to IA unlocks greater potential for automation enablement. Developing and publishing our plans is crucial to achieving the vision in 2025.
    • Joining up the wealth of expertise and talent to achieve the national potential

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) / Real Time Location Systems (RTLS)

Aim: To support successful adoption of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) / Real Time Location Systems (RTLS) across as many NHS organisations as possible by 2024.

  • Our achievements

    • Designed the National community of practice for clinical engineers, IT and other NHS staff linked to RTLS projects.
    • We completed the discovery phase, where we interviewed and surveyed stakeholders to explore the uses of RTLS, to identify the potential for adoption. This was summarised in a blog published on the NHS England website.
    • Distributed £1.6 million to 10 sites looking to deploy RTLS and generate evidence of impact
  • Our delivery plans (2022/23)

    • Generating evidence of impact from applications of RTLS from our Unified Tech Fund sites over the course of the next 2 years
    • Continue to grow the community of practice (FutureNHS) both in membership and useful content including case studies and example business cases
    • A Blueprint is currently being created by Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which will act as an exemplar for other organisations looking to do a similar project, and provide learnings and recommendations
  • Our future aspirations (2023 onwards)

    • To review current legislation, policy, regulations and standards and provide recommendations for improvement
    • Share evidence of impact generated by the 10 funded sites across the wider NHS to build confidence in the workforce to use RTLS to increase productivity
    • Increase adoption of RFID / RTLS across the NHS

Extended reality (XR) including virtual, augmented and mixed reality

Aim: to build a world-class ecosystem for XR technologies in healthcare, improving productivity and patient outcomes

  • Our achievements

    • Analysed over 250 case studies and academic papers, and engaged with over 100 stakeholders to identify potential application areas of XR
    • Built the XR in Healthcare community platform for knowledge and best practice sharing
    • Awarded 14 sites with £2 million from the Unified Tech Fund to pilot XR and generate evidence and learnings
    • Commissioned a discovery on XR to gain a better understanding of its capabilities in healthcare
    • Establish a clear route to market for XR in education and training to be taken forward by Health Education England
  • Our delivery plans (2022/23)

    • Publish findings from the discovery work to develop an ambition statement for XR
    • Generate evidence of impact including from our funded 14 sites over the next 1-2 years
    • Develop and publish case studies and blueprints to share knowledge and good practice
    • Build a public dynamic tool to help find relevant XR evidence based on unique user needs
    • Build a benefits, risks and costs framework to standardise evaluation of XR projects
  • Our future aspirations (2023 onwards)

    • Collaborate on the development of a national strategy to enable effective and safe use of XR in the NHS and social care
    • Continue to generate and build evidence of impact
    • Publish resource to support those developing, buying and selling XR in healthcare

Digital productivity opportunity pipeline

Aim: to identify and evaluate digital productivity opportunities which could benefit health and care services at scale.

  • Our achievements

    • Reviewed the evidence for multiple new and innovative technologies that have the potential to generate benefit, including blockchain, drones and 3D printing in health and social care
    • Joined up our ways of working with the Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) to support research and scale of proven innovations in healthcare
    • Developed a pipeline process for all technologies under our review based on their maturity and readiness for scale
  • Our delivery plans (2022/23)

    • Continue to carry out research to identify technologies with the potential to improve productivity
    • Prioritise the review of technologies with the strongest alignment to NHS initiatives such as the MedTech Funding Mandate and the Artificial Intelligence Award
    • Evaluate the cost-effectiveness of technologies with the strongest potential to improve productivity and partner with other teams working on these technologies to reduce duplication and silos
  • Our future aspirations (2023 onwards)

    • Provide subject matter expertise and direction to other teams within NHS England such as the Accelerated Access Collaborative (AAC) to support the use of proven technologies with productivity benefits within the NHS and social care in England

Benefits, research and reporting

Aim: to ensure the Digital Productivity programme is benefits focused, and continuously evaluating evidence and research to achieve maximum gain/impact for the NHS.

  • Our achievements

    • We have used artificial intelligence to analyse over 500 pieces of research - ensuring that our programme is evidence based, supports horizon scanning for our pipeline, and informs our technology workstreams
    • Supported over 100 NHS Providers to understand reporting productivity related benefits
    • Developed digital productivity benefits reporting guidance and documentation for over 60 Unified Tech Fund sites
    • Developed benefits and evaluation frameworks for RPA and RTLS to support NHS providers and suppliers to evaluate their impact
  • Our delivery plans (2022/23)

    • Tracking 400+ measures of impact for 67 Unified Technology Fund sites - supporting some sites to publish a blueprint for implementation at local level
    • Develop unified productivity metrics across the NHS
    • Supporting the pipeline of proven productivity improving technologies through appropriate support and change management with the system
    • Help steer robust evaluation of the programmes work
    • Collect and analyse evidence for the benefits of implementing productivity improving tools for NHS staff, patients, the public and the wider NHS
  • Our future aspirations (2023 onwards)

    • Develop a benefits and evaluation framework for XR technology that incorporates cost and risk
    • Deliver a set of unified metrics for productivity informed by the 60 Unified Tech Fund benefits and developing a unified metrics dashboard which visualises the impact of our work
    • Publish digital productivity playbooks to increase confidence in adopting digital technologies and realising positive productivity outcomes
    • Publish our two year impact report (end of 22/23 FY)

Get in touch

Discover how we can help you to adopt digital technologies to improve productivity, or share your experiences with us, by joining us on the Future NHS collaboration platform, or emailing: england.digital.productivity@nhs.net.

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