Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Foundation NHS Trust has dramatically reduced the time spent by staff on tedious tasks after launching a Centre of Excellence for the use of robotic process automation (RPA) technology.
The Centre was established to boost the efficiency of back office activities by automating high volume, repetitive tasks across finance, procurement, human resources and informatics departments through software bots.
The automations that it releases are built on the Anytime Anywhere platform from the RPA vendor Automation Anywhere, which consists of a Bot Creator and Bot Runner, all managed through the Control Room tool.
The automations built on the platform have already yielded some impressive results. They include one bot designed to check income and costs in the Trust's financial accounts, which previously would take a team of eight people the best part of a week to check every month. Introducing a bot has allowed the Trust to automate 60 percent of that work, by automatically processing everything that's verified as accurate and leaving only a list of exceptions that require the team's attention.
Another early bot assesses VAT returns, a complicated task in the NHS due to its array of exemptions and reduced rates. At Chelsea and Westminster, an accountant spends three days every month correcting errors in the data
"We've now automated that," Sandra Easton, Chief Financial Officer at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, tells Computerworld UK. “At the moment, we've taken out 30 percent of that work just by using the basic RPA, but we will be enhancing that to make it more intuitive, and we expect to be able to take about 70 percent of that workload out. It's also got the benefit of being slightly better than a person, and more consistent.”
The initial RPA programme was limited to four areas of corporate services as they provided a safe back-office environment to test the system and allow Easton to make the case for future deployments in patient-facing areas, and also because staff were already dedicating much of their digital focus to a new electronic patient record system.
"When I look at what other people have done, not necessarily in the NHS, they're very dependent on either the manufacturer of the product to maintain it and develop it and tweak it, or you have an external organisation that supports it," says Easton. "What I wanted to create was a Centre of Excellence that would do all that maintenance, but also actually drive the programmes forward in a way that will really benefit us. No one in my team knows better what needs to be automated than the people doing the job themselves.
"Now, what I want to do with the decisions that we come up with is to translate those into other NHS organisations, and having the skills in my team that I can then take out to other organisation just makes it much more efficient for the rest of the NHS.”
Creating a Centre of Excellence
Last summer, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Foundation NHS Trust put out a call for vendors to propose digital solutions for the organisation’s numerous challenges. The Trust received responses from 21 vendors, who were whittled down to a shortlist of six. The submission from Automation Anywhere was chosen as the winning bid due to a combination of its cultural fit with the Trust and the scalability of its tech.
"We felt that the values of Automation Anywhere melded nicely with our organisational values," says Easton. "And they also had the ability to lift and shift all the solutions that we come up with at Chelsea and Westminster throughout the rest of the NHS, to really cascade our learning through the other 250-odd provider hospitals within England."
Easton acknowledges that some of the 6,000 Trust staff members needed reassurance that the bots wouldn't take their jobs. She assured them that the project would free up their time to focus on providing high-quality patient care to the one million people the Trust serves, and added that there are still no plans to reduce employee numbers.
Easton is convinced that her staff now share her faith in RPA.
“The love it," she says. "Sitting at a computer screen for a whole week just looking at spreadsheets is not the most attractive job in the world. What they can do now is in the morning, have that list of exceptions, and go out to talk to board managers and talk to commissions to find out what's actually going on in your department, and really improve the information that we have.
"That sort of feedback and reaction is really what's driving the Centre of Excellence. People really want to be involved, because they see how this creates the capacity for them to do the interesting bits of their jobs."
The Trust ensured that the implementation would serve the needs of staff by inviting a selection of them to a workshop where they came up with a range of ideas for bots that are now being developed. Easton believes that closely involving staff in the programme has been a crucial factor in the success of the deployment.
“If I hadn't have the team as engaged as they are now, I probably wouldn't have any bots going and still would be dragging people along. So you have to get your team engaged. And then you have to think big and fail fast. If something's not going to work, just bin it and move on to the next thing because there are so many things that you can be doing with this technology.”
A pilot project that automated a set of processes in the finance department provided evidence of its potential by improving speed, efficiency, and turnaround times. New bots are now being regularly rolled out, and the Trust aims to release 100 by the end of the calendar year
"Then it's about engaging the rest of the business," says Easton. "We've already got clinicians who are getting excited about things like preoperative assessment, patient scheduling for operations and outpatients and that sort of stuff. That's definitely the next step on our journey when the organisation are ready to receive it.”
Impact of RPA on the NHS
RPA technology is quickly gaining traction in the NHS as a way to help Trusts cope with swinging cuts. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a centre-left think tank, estimates that automation could save the NHS £12.5 billion a year - almost 10 per cent of its annual running cost - by freeing up the time of frontline staff.
Easton hopes her Trust's Centre of Excellence will be serve as a model of best practice for RPA for every NHS organisation, and adds that the bot-sharing supported by Automation Anywhere's Bot Store will help disseminate the lessons learnt at Chelsea and Westminster.
She believes that RPA could play a central role in bringing NHS services together, a key tenet of the government’s NHS Long Term Plan.
"Within the whole NHS there are only two HR systems in use, So if I build a bot that does something with my HR system, 95 percent of the rest of the NHS will be able to use it because they all have the same HR system. Only 5 percent will need a different one," she says.
"There are so many synergies and the potential to really cascade this out as we start bringing back offices to work closely together is huge. And then it will drive huge efficiencies for the sector."