The future of work: robotics in health

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EY - Brett Martin

By Brett Martin
Principal, Health Care Advisory Services
Ernst & Young LLP

Our clients in the global health industry are universally concerned with controlling costs and improving quality in the services they provide to patients. New tools that can enable savings and efficiencies are always welcome, in particular if they can also help alleviate talent shortages and boost retention of key employees. RPA (robotic process automation) is gaining ground in health care as an enabler in curbing costs, reducing error and removing routine work to free up administrative and clinical staff for higher-value, patient-centered activities.

Most people have heard about RPA by now, but it’s still worthwhile to distinguish RPA from the higher-level intelligent/cognitive automation that can learn over time, and also from operating room robots that assist surgeons. RPA is both more basic than those applications, yet in some way, more versatile. It is complex software that sits on top of existing applications and is programmed to complete repetitive tasks requiring multiple and variable steps and interactions.

For example, in a revenue cycle process, there are multiple processes in different systems that must be checked (e.g., connecting with insurance companies, addressing updates to provider information) in clearing a patient financially for a procedure. A robot can step through these many touch points and make a rules-based determination about, for example, whether the procedure code matches the patient’s insurance policy.

We’ve seen an increasing number of provider examples of RPA. In Scotland, an automated grading system was used to help screen 600 patients a day for a specific eye pathology associated with retinopathy. However, this grading system did not talk to the rest of their information systems, and creating an automated application interface was not an option. Enter RPA, which logs into the automated grading system, performs a routine set of checks and then logs into the electronic medical record system to update a patient record with the results. With RPA handling routine processes quickly and accurately, cost savings of 20%–50% can be realized over manual operations.

RPA’s impact on talent and workforce can also be substantial. In the NHS Scotland example, once RPA is up and running, the human screener steps in only when there are variances requiring judgment and expertise. With RPA relieving people of the most repetitive tasks, health workers’ time is freed up for more engaging, patient-centered care activities.

Getting staff involved early on, in initial scoping of RPA opportunities, is key. Not only can they assist leadership in identifying and documenting processes that may benefit from RPA, having their input from the start will naturally help when you need them to support a live RPA instance. Your human employees are integral to RPA success: their judgment and interpretation will be required to monitor, track and control processes. Communicating early and often about the RPA initiative will benefit all involved.

For further reading:

My EY colleagues Chris Massouras and Jon Powell discussed RPA and how it effects the future of work in health care in two recent publications:

In these articles, Jon and Chris offer further considerations for how health organizations can assess opportunities for RPA and how a thoughtful implementation may not only save time, costs and reduce errors, but may also — by relieving workers of mundane tasks — improve employee engagement and retention.

RPA can have an impact across the entire organization. EY assists health sector clients in assessing that impact and the upside of this and other technologies. In short, thoughtfully deployed RPA may yield more accurate results at lower costs — as well as a more engaged and lasting workforce that can return its focus to patients and healthy outcomes.