A bit disappointingly, when we were told we’d be talking Robots at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, its Deputy Director of Financial Operations, Stephen Aynsley-Smith, had to tell diginomica/government he has no clinking, clanking Tin Men over in his back office.
But what he does have may be a lot more valuable - and not just to his institution, but to the whole of the UK healthcare system, he hopes:
So far we have won back two whole days a month of time our management accountants had to spend on a very basic process - time that they are now spending on analysing data, not downloading and formatting things.
And given there are 250 Trusts working in very similar ways to us, that’s a way to save we have very quickly identified with ‘robots’ that could be replicated right across the NHS, which as a whole effectively only has three financial systems in daily use - meaning so much time could soon be saved and costs freed up, if everyone did something like we’ve started.
What is it that has this NHS manager so excited? Simple - RPA, or Robotic Process Automation, a technology which Aynsley-Smith is pleased he’s got into the ground floor of usage in a National Health Service context - and which he will apply soon to not just some of his Finance processes, but very soon things like HR and IT, too.
How this happened: Chelsea and Westminster, which has around 6,000 staff caring for nearly one million people and which is made up of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and the West Middlesex University Hospital, went to market in the Summer of 2018 not so much with a specific tech in mind, he says, but with curiosity about what possible solutions might be out there for some problems it was facing.
We didn’t know anything about robots. We were just looking to see if anyone out there could add value to some of our processes - to see if there was any innovative technology out there that could help improve the way we produce and use our Management Information and Reporting.
As a result of this open-ended approach, some 20 suppliers of various types contacted the Trust, he says - but it was one in particular that fired his imagination. So, as of the end of 2018, Aynsley-Smith started to work with a US-headquartered RPA specialist called Automation Anywhere, with the pair now hip-deep together in exploring the potential of RPA technology in the Trust’s corporate services section.
The idea: centralise automated activities across the business to achieve efficiency and productivity gains in back office activities by automating high volume repetitive tasks so as to better support staff in finance, human resources, procurement and informatics, as NHS bodies likes to call their internal IT functions:
We’re basically a £700m business that has some standard business processes that are needed to generate the information we need to offer the best clinical services we can to our patients. They’re the bedrock of what we do, but we don’t really get as much value out of the information that flows through them as we perhaps could - so if we can find a way to not just produce those better, but also find a way to analyse and exploit the data we are getting, that’s even better - so we are really interested in how we can connect improvements in the back office to that all-important front office, which in our case, of course, is helping clinicians and patients by doing things like bringing down the waiting list and any delays to theatre time.
35 processes robots can help with - and that’s just in Finance
And as stated, a successful pilot has already automated one processes in the Finance department - where a monthly report creation workflow that previously needed 0.5 days per each of the four-person team that does it having to spend a lot of time preparing the datasets. Previously, that was a lot of time messing about with Excel and in-house apps to produce a format that the accountants could more easily work with - but now, enthuses Aynsley-Smith, that’s been given over to his first robot to do overnight instead, allowing the team to go straight to the important bit of the work:
This now gives my people extra time to do their analysis and focus on what really matters, which improves the overall quality and accuracy of our spending decisions and improving the accuracy of our forecasts - we really know exactly what we spent and what on. And getting a robot to do this intermediate step instead of spending time and money redeveloping or transforming the applications instead saves us maybe years, certainly months, of time.
Frankly, we used to think we were top of the class at this. Know, we know we are.
And that’s with just one robot - which, in case it isn’t clear, is simply a trendy term for automating a rules-based business process in software to speed up its completion, and is less AI and more automating of processes that humans used to do (the vendor Chelsea and Westminster are working with on all this has a cute phrase about RPA being about ‘taking the robot out of the human’, which sums it up pretty well). And the blue touch paper hasn’t even really officially been lit yet - the Trust says it’s going into full production with the RPA software only at the end of this month, with these initial results just off the proof of concept: Aynsley-Smith told us he has so far identified around 35 processes, just in Finance, that he wants to attack with robots, which he is pretty confident could equate to as much as 5 days a month of full-time staff equivalent time that could be directed to higher-order tasks instead.
It’s probably well worth stating that the Trust does not see this as about replacing staff with these (non-clinking, clanking) robots - its CFO, has gone on record that the tech enables it to deploy the workforce on tasks of greater value and it has no plans to reduce employee numbers. But in summing up the future of RPA in his organisation, for Aynsley-Smith the future’s pretty bright:
We haven’t defined a specific cost saving target - instead, this is definitely all about freeing up staff time and improving the quality of their working day, and of the results we need them to produce, too.