None of us want to be replaced by a robot at work. But wait — what if we could give the mindless, repetitive parts of our job to a robot? That sounds a lot more appealing, and it’s precisely what robotic process automation (RPA) was created for. Essentially, RPA automates rules-based business processes, which can range from simple tasks like data entry to complicated data extractions for EHR migration.
A recent study found that the average employee spends 60 hours a month on easily automatable tasks. Those include “hated” tasks like data entry, filing digital documents, and compiling reports. A whopping 85% of respondents said they would be attracted to work at a company that invested in automation to reduce repetitive digital administration tasks. In another study, 70% of workers said the biggest opportunity of automation lies in reducing time wasted on repetitive work.
So it’s no surprise that Gartner predicted RPA software revenue would reach $2.9 billion in 2022, up 19.5% from 2021. Organizations still have a lot of repetitive, manual work that could be automated, freeing up employees to focus on more strategic work, says one of the researchers. Another driver is a push from software vendors to offer a suite of tools that perform IT tasks such as data mining in addition to automation.
With a never-ending need for reporting and data entry, hospitals are an ideal setting for RPA, especially with the administrative burn out we are seeing at unprecedented levels in healthcare. According to the a Addressing the Healthcare Staffing Shortage report from Definitive Healthcare, nearly 334,000 physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other clinicians left the workforce in 2021 due to retirement, burnout and pandemic-related stressors.
Physicians experienced the largest loss, with 117,000 professionals leaving the workforce in 2021, followed by nurse practitioners, with 53,295 departures, and physician assistants, with 22,704 departures. About 22,000 physical therapists also left the healthcare workforce and 15,500 licensed clinical social workers.
“If hospitals want to stay ahead of their competitors, they need to embrace all that technology can offer,” Jerry Adach told HealthTech Magazines. Adach is the director of enterprise data and automation at Central Maine Healthcare, where he implemented almost 200 automated workflows. “Hospitals need to be automation-driven organizations, and [RPA] platforms are positioned to explode with new capabilities,” he said, adding that he believes RPA can benefit clinical, supply chain, marketing, and even plant maintenance departments.
RPA in a hospital setting
RPA excels at automating rules-based repetitive tasks such as standard report running and data entry. It can also successfully digitize tasks that are prone to human error. In a clinical setting, that translates to scanning documents, auditing patient-records access, notes processes, and processing patient admission and discharge records.
For those in billing and finance, RPA can help with insurance processing, electronic payment processes, tax-related tasks, creating new general ledger codes, and bad debt write offs. For HR, tasks like payroll updates, new hire procedures, employee exit procedures, benefit processing, and credentialing can all be automated.
Hospital information technology departments can use RPA for domain updates, systems tests, systems conversions, and systems migrations. RPA can also be used to connect disparate systems, an all-too-common occurrence in hospitals. RPA-scripted interfaces are ideal for instances where HL7 interfaces are not an option or are too expensive. RPA interfaces can be used for batch, real-time, and interactive interfaces, and they can be deployed quickly to help with tight deadlines like an EHR upgrade.
The truth is, when it comes to repetitive tasks, robots perform better than humans virtually every time. For one thing, they work 24/7/365 without breaks. For another, humans are prone to errors, especially when tasks are mundane and contain large amounts of data, and robots are not.
Automation has been shown to produce ROI within a year of implementation. A Deloitte study found that implementations resulted in improved compliance, improved quality/accuracy, improved productivity, and cost reduction. A huge number of companies surveyed (78%) said they expect to significantly increase RPA investment over the next three years.
Here are four main benefits from RPA implementation:
- Improved efficiencies. Organizations can scale repetitive tasks, leading to increased productivity and time and cost savings. A workflow used to streamline a process in one part of the organization can be reused in other areas of the business (with tweaks, as necessary).
- Improved quality. Automating tasks reduces the risk of errors, making the process more robust and efficient.
- Reduced waste. Labor costs are the obvious one here, but overloaded employees spend a lot of time on work processes using paper and spreadsheets, and phone tag can virtually be eliminated through automated systems.
- Labor savings. Automated systems complete tasks in a fraction of the time it would take a human. They can also augment the human workforce during busy periods and
Speaking of labor, perhaps the best part of RPA is that employees quickly understand the value. Rather than threatening their livelihood, RPA takes away the worst parts of their jobs. Instead of dull, repetitive tasks like paper faxing, filing, report running, and data entry, employees are freed up to focus on more strategic, rewarding projects.
In most cases, healthcare organizations choose not to let employees go following an RPA implementation. Instead, they reallocate their (human) resources where they can be better used, boosting employee satisfaction and easing staff burnout. When automation is used in clinical areas, it results in nurses and physicians being able to spend more time with patients.
In fact, as technology gets smarter, research shows its best used in conjunction with humans. “The secret to making [smart technology] work is the business model itself, where machines and humans are integrated to complement each other. Machines do repetitive and automated tasks and will always be more precise and faster. However, those uniquely human skills of creativity, care, intuition, adaptability, and innovation are increasingly imperative to success,” wrote the authors of a 2020 Harvard Business Review study.
In summary, as hospitals continue to seek ways to control costs and improve financial stability while improving employee satisfaction and patient outcomes, RPA can play an important role. With fast ROI and a warm reception from employees, these implementations can help reduce clinician burnout and enable care providers to spend less time on administrative tasks and more time focused on patient care.
Photo: Olivier Le Moal, Getty Images