Feb 27 2020

Will Robots Replace Hospital Employees?

There’s big potential for robotic process automation in healthcare, but the value of human touch and intuition can’t be outsourced.

The growth of robotic process automation, or RPA, is giving businesses of all kinds the ability to handle rote tasks and boost efficiency. The technology, as the Association for Intelligent Information Management notes, involves software tools that partially or fully automate human activities that are manual, rule-based and repetitive.

Applied in healthcare, RPA “bots” may expedite many clinical functions to add value throughout the provider supply chain. Common uses include extraction and analysis of patient data, appointment scheduling and claims processing.

RPA tools offer “a tremendous opportunity for healthcare and life sciences organizations to alleviate some of the administrative burdens that plague healthcare delivery while also assisting clinicians in making decisions about patient care,” Deloitte principal David Yarin notes in an analysis published in the The Wall Street Journal.

That’s the thinking behind Grace, a chatbot developed at Providence St. Joseph in Washington state to assess patients with low-acuity issues. By asking for symptoms via an online pop-up window, Grace suggests proper next steps with 90 percent accuracy.

The potential for the chatbot is big: “Imagine if I could have had access to a Grace who could have determined after a series of mostly ‘yes/no’ responses whether I needed to go to an urgent care center, or to get some prescription meds, hydrate and rest,” digital transformation consultant and author Paddy Padmanabhan writes in MobiHealthNews

An intuitive healthcare bot, he adds, might one day be able to call patients a ride-share, notify the clinic of their arrival, prepare medical records and the related chat transcript and predict out-of-pocket costs or copays. 

Benefits of Robotic Process Automation in Healthcare

Although there are fears that bots will eliminate swaths of healthcare jobs — Gartner forecasts the overall worldwide RPA market will hit $1 billion this year — some experts say the tools will complement some workplace functions and redirect human skills. 

“Rather than spending thousands of hours obtaining and sifting through raw data, skilled employees can focus on using RPA-curated information to form insights and make strategic decisions that better support patient safety and care, and related research,” says Yarin.

On the administrative side, RPA can address a host of healthcare functions critical to reducing errors and expenses. After one European hospital deployed bots to handle some billing and claims functions, processing costs per claim dropped by 75 percent. 

RPA also can address interoperability gaps. An AI-powered healthcare bot known as Olive was designed to navigate and pull information from dozens of platforms to execute a task, company founder and CEO Sean Lane said in an interview with James Kotecki, host of the podcast Kotecki On Tech. 

With computer vision capabilities that understand what’s on a computer screen, Olive “can log into systems just like a human would, and then do entity extraction and entity resolution, connecting the data together across different software systems,” Lane says. 

Such capacity is key for easing clinician stress tied to electronic health records, which can be integrated with RPA tools to help input, transmit and analyze data. They can extract and analyze data warehouse information to help health organizations measure progress based on real-time, rules-based analysis, Deloitte notes.

And they can assist with human resources needs: Deployment of more than 80 automation tasks that sync with existing systems is helping thousands of nurses at MD Anderson Cancer Center determine appropriate staffing levels more quickly and effectively. That and other RPA functions have saved the organization $150,000

What to Consider When Implementing RPA in Healthcare

Only half of healthcare organizations make “extensive” use of automation, according to a 2019 white paper on the subject produced by The Economist, and the industry is among the most resistant to adopting it. 

This slow foray may not be due to the technology but rather rushed implementations that have postponed or scrapped initiatives, a McKinsey report notes.

For a successful RPA deployment in any business, CIO suggests several best practices — including detailed research, staff education, a thorough review of security needs and outlining a strong use case before taking any action.

That aligns with a PwC report on RPA in healthcare, which notes the tool should be used to bridge gaps within and across applications, not in place of them — and to plan holistic, results-driven initiatives that ask where RPA “should” (rather than “can”) apply.

The PwC report recommends starting with a proof of concept followed by a small RPA pilot to gain comfort and executive buy-in. This scale can determine how automation may align with higher-level strategic initiatives and measure future value. 

A long-term perspective should drive all RPA efforts in healthcare, says Yarin, of Deloitte: “When organizations implement automation tools, they typically reassess and redesign whole processes to make them more efficient and less costly.” 

Such processes should be communicated to staff with care as well as a caveat: Digital workers aren’t taking away employees’ livelihoods.

“But they will be taking the jobs that humans are doing today, and humans will shift to work on something else,” Lane, of Olive, told Kotecki. “That’s a good thing. That’s what we’ve always done as a human race. That’s what we’ve done as an economy, as a society.”

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