Automating management of communication can ease care backlog pressures in healthcare, says Simon Perks, head of robotics and AI at Agilisys.

In a recent HSJ roundtable that I participated in along with our partners at Blue Prism, the issue of the growing elective and diagnostic backlog is one of the most significant challenges facing the NHS. As one of the panellists rightly stated, the pandemic didn’t create the backlog, but it did accelerate the trend towards longer waits in the NHS that goes back several years.

Around 5.6 million people were waiting to start consultant-led elective treatment as of July this year – and almost a third had been waiting for 18 months or more. The challenge is an enormous one and is logistically impossible to sort manually without taking several hundred frontline workers away from their day job to triage, understand and address the backlog of people.

The healthcare sector is process rich, and many of those processes are repetitive and mundane, making them well suited to virtual workers. It therefore makes sense to utilise automation. By using robotics, you absolutely can streamline the patient experience, move people through the healthcare system more efficiently, free up clerical staff, and create time for frontline staff to spend additional time with more patients.

Automating the care backlog

Given the current situation with the care backlog, I believe communication is critical to the sector’s management – and I deliberately use the word sector. Yes, cancer referrals and the like absolutely must go to the front of the queue, but what about those waiting for hip surgery and other treatments further down the list? They are still in pain and are probably presenting elsewhere within the health and social care system.

If the hospital isn’t meeting their needs, they’re probably popping up in social care, in their local council, in unemployment, causing broader service pressures.

Through effective communication – with patients and across the system – there’s an opportunity to alleviate these pressures across inter-related services. For example, if ‘patient X’ doesn’t know when their next appointment will be, they’ll ring the hospital to try and find out, or they’ll contact their GP. They may even be looking at private options and be prepared to take on debt. In short, this patient has their problem, and that’s what they’re focused on.

Not everything can be set in stone because waiting lists, staffing, capacity and so on all change, but at least patients will understand that an organisation is trying to provide updates and helping them to know when they can expect to be treated. By communicating when their situation changes, why it has changed and when the next update will be, all of which can easily be automated, the patient’s understanding can vastly improve. It doesn’t ease the pain, but it provides some visibility to help them understand what the future roadmap may look like.

Crucially, we can take this a step further by automatically feeding information into local authority data, telling them that patient X is in the care of a GP and has been referred to a specialist who has recommended a specific course of action. If social care gets a good idea of where a patient awaiting hip surgery sits in the waiting list, they can make reasonable adjustments to the patient’s property. It may incur a small cost on the social care side, but it could prevent a fall and the need for expensive emergency care.

Automated proactive communication

The key here is becoming proactive, ideally using intelligent automation, so we’re not adding further pressures to the already creaking system. The automation of risk stratification and understanding of the who, what, where and when, is a great starting point. The next stage is all about removing the need for people to remember or find the time in their already packed schedule to go and complete an action by automating it. Healthcare staff are never going to walk past someone who’s clearly in need of assistance, but when they’re just a number in the vast backlog, it’s hard to feel the level of humanity required.

If you’ve got a hospital with 500,000 people waiting for care, we need to use automation to make the situation real and direct needs across the whole system.

It’s worth noting here that every one of those ‘numbers’ has been assessed. We know they need an additional level of care, support, pain management. Yes, we’ll get to them when we get to them, but how do you reassure them? How do we keep them updated? How do you keep them engaged with the process and journey, so they don’t just give up and accept that they’ll have to live with their problem? How do you prevent people from falling through the cracks, at which point they’ll become disillusioned and start taking their pain out on the next person they see? The answer is automating management of the care backlog – specifically communication – through intelligent automation.

 

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