Why the NHS BSA is using AWS for its contact centre, chatbot services and machine learning

Profile picture for user Sooraj Shah By Sooraj Shah May 16, 2018
The use of AWS is merely the first foray into cloud services as part of a wider cloud agnostic strategy at NHS BSA.

health hospital nhs
The NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) has implemented cloud-based contact centre Amazon Web Services (AWS) Connect and deep learning chatbot service Amazon Lex to help improve user experience, increase efficiency and cut costs.

The organisation, which is an executive non-departmental public body of the Department Health, provides support services to the NHS in England and Wales, with a range of services being offered to NHS organisations, contractors and patients. These include prescription services, pensions and the European Health Insurance Card.

NHSBSA has 450 contact centre operators who deal with just short of five million interactions per year – with about 300,000 calls that can be answered through non-intelligent voice automation. With this high volume of people contacting the organisation, NHSBSA wanted to scale its services to meet the demand, and provide a better services for its users.

Darren Curry, chief digital officer of NHSBSA, told delegates at the keynote of AWS Summit in London last week that this meant being able to offer its services outside of the traditional 8am to 6pm timeframe, and enabling its contact centre operators to focus on customer queries that require more support – for example, questions about whether the European Health Insurance Card can be used in France could more easily be dealt with without human intervention.

In addition, the organisation wanted scalability so that it could lower call wait times in busy periods. Curry said:

For example, if [Moneysavingexpert’s] Martin Lewis was to suggest that people needed a European Health Insurance Card, we would get a huge spike in traffic. The traditional on-premise infrastructure we had in place was not efficient to deal with the scale of calls.

By improving the scalability, the NHS BSA would also benefit from cost savings, he added.

Fail fast

Curry explained that the organisation tool a ‘fail fast’ approach, meaning that if a specific service didn’t work, it could test something else – but it wanted to do this quickly. He said:

We wanted to test whether we could automate the service and reduce the call centre load by providing simple answers to information, advice and guidance.

After a call with the company’s cloud brokerage partners Arcus Global and the AWS team, the organisation’s call centre management team, two of its technical team and some business users worked on building the service for NHS BSA.

It implemented the service after only two weeks – which particularly impressed Curry – and then it had the service operational for three weeks, with the service going 24-7 for the last five days of the trial.

Although the organisation picked November for the POC – which meant it wasn’t very busy in dealing with European Health Insurance Card related calls, Curry said that the organisation received 10,914 calls, of which 4316 calls were resolved by the Lex service. Curry explained:

So it took us two weeks of work to get a 40 percent reduction of call volume – so it was very successful.

There were 5215 calls transferred to operators, where Lex did provide some information but as it wasn’t integrated with backend services, the call still had to be referred to an operator to complete the last bit of the transaction.

Overall, only 663 calls were dropped by Lex (6.5 percent) – which meant the trial was successful. Furthermore, over 75 percent of the calls were handled within six minutes, and the contact centre had a 26 percent reduction in traffic.

Curry believes that a project like this using traditional technology would have taken four to six months rather than two weeks.

Digging deeper

In a post-keynote interview with Diginomica, Chris Sutter, cloud architect at NHS BSA, and Curry explained that the use of AWS Connect and Lex were part of a wider strategy to use a range of cloud services and to be cloud agnostic.

Sutter explains that this all began by initially using DevOps to increase the throughput of delivery of its services. This then snowballed into looking at different cloud services. Within a 12 month period it has 18 new services running. The organisation didn’t want to concentrate on typical hosting – it wanted to look beyond this to emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning.

For this particular project, AWS was chosen because it offered NHS BSA a presence in the UK, and matched the organisation’s requirements on cost, delivery and security. In addition, Arcus Global, its cloud partner, led the way on the selection.
Sutter said:

To be honest the partnership has just worked. So I’ve come from a cloud background and I know Microsoft very well, but AWS was the best fit for the NHS.

But to be honest if we’re looking further down the line, we want to be able to use other cloud providers depending on who is the best fit. The cloud platform has been cloud agnostic for us so we can use technologies like Docker and Kubernetes, and switch providers – we want to re-evaluate every two years to ensure we’re using what is best value for us and the taxpayers.

Currently, there is no equivalent of AWS Connect on Microsoft or Google, but Sutter suggests that in two years’ time, Google could have a better fit for the organisation and if this is the case the organisation wouldn’t hesitate to move over.

NHS BSA has found by moving to this type of a cloud model for services that it can try new types of services or offerings out, meaning it can fail fast, succeed and move forward – while also being able to better cope with peaks and troughs of demand.

Curry says that the cloud environment means NHS BSA is not tethered to a solid state or location.

We’ve looked at potentially being able to increase call centre seats really quickly and having a cloud environment enables us to do that without having all of the infrastructure in place – before we’d have to consider all of the network links and buildings and all the infrastructure around that, now it’s all internet-based cloud services.

This also means that employees can now work from home, and even if the UK has a serious outbreak of a virus, the organisation can scale out its call centres – without physically doing so. Instead, it can take on more people within the cloud environment, who can work from different locations.

Sutter also explains that AWS is bringing more partners to the table for Connect, which is a good thing for its customers. This includes communications provider KCOM, which is already a provider for NHS BSA. He says:

This means we could use KCOM and AWS Connect together seamlessly and hopefully there will be more partnerships from suppliers through AWS and other cloud providers to help us provide a better service.

NHS BSA is also openly embracing new technologies like AI and machine learning, Sutter says that with the sheer volume of data the organisation has it makes sense for it to use this data to learn from the past to better prepare for the future.

In one such example, the organisation is analysing how its call centres work, and whether it can offload certain calls to individuals in the call centre based on emotions.
Sutter suggests:

We deal with pensions, and we have widowers ringing us up so we don’t want someone with an abrupt voice speaking to someone who is a widow, you want someone emotionally aware, so you can work out using AI and machine learning where to best place people in a call.

Sutter and Curry make clear that the AWS implementation is merely a first step into the use of cloud services, and because of its success, the organisation is likely to continue this approach in the years to come.