Ask anyone who’s spent time being treated in a hospital what their best memory of it is, and the odds are that they’ll nominate the staff. Hospital environments themselves may be clinical, cold and impersonal, but the human touch provided by nurses, clinicians and other personnel is something that patients can connect with, and an important part of the overall patient experience.

Yet as healthcare workers find themselves shouldering heavier administrative burdens, the scope for them to engage in this important aspect of their work is shrinking.

It may seem counterintuitive, but robots and automation may offer a way out of this problem, freeing up healthcare personnel to spend more time caring for their patients instead of running the gauntlet of dull, repetitive and unrewarding – for patients and staff alike – administrative tasks.

Joining dots

The healthcare industry has different processes that involve multiple steps, from registering patients in clinical systems to treating them to their eventual discharge, says Javed Ali, Industry Practice Director of Healthcare at US-headquartered software supplier UiPath. At each stage, information must be collected and entered into a system, starting with the patient’s particulars, moving through a clinician’s diagnosis, and eventually details of the treatment prescribed.

If such systems are isolated from one another, healthcare staff are forced to do the work of making the connections themselves. Doctors, for instance, will need to collect a patient’s details, previous diagnoses and lab results in order to provide proper treatment. At a system level, supply chain staff will need to consolidate information from various parts of the hospital or clinical facility to manage inventory.

Time that healthcare personnel spend manually consolidating data and flipping between disparate administrative systems is time not spent interacting with patients, Ali says. For patients with chronic illnesses or who are in need of urgent procedures, time can be a life-changing factor.

Another time and workload challenge for healthcare providers arises from a shortage of staff. As the Covid-19 pandemic approaches its third year, many healthcare workers have become exhausted, Ali says. In a phenomenon dubbed “the great resignation”, employees in a range of industries have been quitting their jobs at an alarming rate, and the healthcare sector has not been spared. That has left remaining staff with more unwieldy workloads, and has prompted hospitals and other healthcare facilities to seek ways to reduce that burden, says Jim Lim, Sector Lead for Healthcare & Life Sciences at Singapore-based Regional ICT company NCS.

Helping hand

They could do worse than look to robotic assistance. Rather than tasking healthcare staff with handling administration systems, constantly entering data into a range of software products and manually consolidating information, robots can function as electronic secretaries. Ali says robots can take the load off staff, “removing that repetitious, boring stuff from their day-to-day lives”.

For instance, robots can help hospital administrators extract information on open slots for appointments, available physicians, and patients’ insurance benefits. There are also robots that can quickly provide doctors with patients’ records and extract historical information on which treatments or medicines worked, and which did not, Ali says.

Artificial intelligence also has a role to play, as demonstrated by an NCS collaboration with the Singapore National Eye Centre involving an AI-based resource optimiser, Lim says. By analysing a patient’s profile, the AI product can automatically match hospital resources such as doctors, nurses, operating theatres and wards to the patient’s needs, reducing waiting times. Without the AI scheduler, healthcare professionals would have to spend time manually allocating these resources instead of focusing on patient care, he says.

Technologies such as robots and AI can increase the accuracy of data-processing, such as document processing, calculating payments, and assisting nurses and physicians with recommendations, says Ali. Peak-demand periods can be stressful for healthcare staff, and can lead to accidental miscalculations or data omissions. By way of example, Ali says that UiPath helped to address this issue among Indian healthcare providers using automation, improving the tracking of patients’ medical bills and payments.

Errors and the need to review individual cases repeatedly had meant that it took time for hospitals to receive payments, but UiPath’s robots helped to reduce the margin of error, allowing hospitals to obtain payments two weeks earlier, he says. Hospitals were then able to quickly channel funds into what healthcare staff and patients needed most, such as pharmaceutical supplies and surgical equipment.

Multiple roles

Beyond administrative work, robots can also aid diagnosis. AI-enabled robots now exist that can analyse X-rays and identify problems based on them, Ali says. Far from replacing doctors and other clinical staff, robot-assisted analysis supports clinicians’ judgments and helps them to offer better diagnoses. This reduces workloads for radiologists and other healthcare professionals so they can focus on guiding patients through consultations and discussing recovery plans, Lim says.

Robots can help at other stages of patient care, too, such as nursing. NCS has developed a robotic nursing assistant named Florence, after the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, Lim says. Currently undergoing trials at hospitals, the robot measures patients’ vital signs and enters the data directly into a database. It can even deliver snacks to patients.

Florence is a robot that can help nurses with repetitive and menial tasks such as measuring patients’ vital signs and delivering snacks. Image: NCS/YouTube

“The robotic nursing assistant is really a nurse assistant,” Lim says. “I don’t think the human touch can easily be replaced by technology or robots.”

While robots carry out repetitive, mundane tasks, nurses can focus on answering patients’ questions and communicating with their family members.

Quality patient care goes much further than doctors and nurses interacting with patients, however. The wider healthcare ecosystem supports those interactions and much else besides, with researchers and lab technicians working behind the scenes to provide better medicines, vaccines, and diagnoses for patients.

UiPath has developed a robot for Geisinger, a regional healthcare provider in the United States, to monitor lab results, Ali says. When test results are out, the robot automatically sends them in real time to the relevant personnel. This saves medical staff time and allows patients to receive lab results quickly so they can continue with the next stage of their treatment.

With the help of automation, healthcare staff are “focusing on the main work for which they are hired,” Ali says. “If I’m a doctor, I’m spending more time with the patient and providing best-in-class care for that patient, and not on the system.”