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There’s never been a more exciting time to be in the healthcare industry. Every day a new research paper or hard-hitting story emerges about the power of AI and how it can help the NHS. However, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the hype and reality and to understand exactly what AI means for healthcare specifically.

I want to share some of the incredible stories that I’ve encountered in my role to show you the impact AI is having on patients and employees across our NHS.

Intelligent Automation and Robotic Processing Automation (RPA) are already being used with dramatic effect by an NHS Trust. Put simply, this technology is the use of software with AI and machine learning capabilities to handle high-volume, repeatable tasks that previously required humans to perform. These mundane tasks could include reading emails and patient forms, capturing information and errors, and pushing out tasks and data into other digital solutions. The automation of these tasks frees up workers to do more complex jobs that require uniquely human soft skills.

The NHS is task oriented, making RPA the perfect fit. More than 1.4 million patients are treated every 24 hours and nurses complete an average of 72.3 tasks per hour. According to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), automation of tasks could save the NHS up to £12.5bn a year, the equivalent of 10% of its annual budget.

Thoughtonomy releasing time in the NHS

A great example of a task-heavy process in the NHS is the Electronic Referral Service (eRS), where a GP sends a patient referral into the secondary care system. The process around referrals at East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT) was both manual and laborious. Working in partnership with us, Microsoft Partner Thoughtonomy set about deploying a Virtual Workforce, using RPA and AI to automate the 2,000 referrals that typically came into the trust on a weekly basis.

Using the Thoughtonomy Virtual Workforce® platform, three virtual workers at Ipswich Hospital actively monitor incoming referrals from the national GP Electronic Referral Service (eRS) in real-time, 24 hours a day. The virtual worker receives a referral, reads the content, and extracts the reason for the referral. It retrieves all relevant referral data and supporting clinical information, such as scan and blood test results from disparate sources, before merging everything into a single PDF document. This is then uploaded into the Trust’s administrative systems using highly secure smart card technology and the lead consultant is alerted that the referral is ready for review and grading.

The time to process the first stage of each GP referral was cut from 15-20 minutes to five minutes. Across 5 clinical specialities at ESNEFT virtual workers released 500 hours of time, reduced spend on agency staff, and improved job satisfaction. Within the first 3 months, more than 500 hours of medical secretaries’ time was freed up. The Trust estimates it will save £220,000 in associated direct costs by July 2019.

Two female doctors look at a laptop in a healthcare setting

Time matters

Darren Atkins, Deputy Director of ICT at ESNEFT, said: “Our Trust has a philosophy that time matters. Thoughtonomy’s Intelligent Automation platform has released time for our medical secretaries. It’s giving them more time to speak with patients on the phone or solve problems for doctors, nurses, and other team members. Our staff have more time to make a difference, which improves our patients’ care and experience. This is how we make time matter.  When you look at the time and cost savings we’ve already banked within just one specific area of our operations, you start to get an idea of how intelligent automation can drive transformation on a huge scale within the NHS.”

“The messaging behind RPA and AI is critical. The way we deploy automation in practice is that it’s not a job destroyer; it’s a job enabler. We’re not automating workers. We’re automating work to free up time for people to be more productive or add value to their roles.”

Terry Walby, Thoughtonomy CEO

Thoughtonomy uses a range of Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services to deliver its RPA AI solution, including language, search, speech, and vision.

Learn more

Read the full ESNEFT case study for further details and results

Learn how to maximise the AI opportunity

Kelly Limonte headshotAbout the author

Kelly is the Healthcare Industry Manager at Microsoft UK, working with transformational digital partners and NHS customers to pilot solutions for collaborative working and empowering everyone to do more. She has 15 years’ experience working alongside the NHS, and is passionate about the power technology has to create positive change in healthcare.