JOHANNESBURG - The way we live and work is being disrupted like never before.
Given the pace of technological advances, every industry must adjust its processes to withstand competition and embrace the modern day ways of work and service enhancements.
So is the South African health-care system ready? Yes. We are slowly welcoming robotics, robots or “bots”.
The roll-out of the robotic process automation (RPA) as part of intelligent automation enables advances in health-care administration and the ability to meet the growing demands to deliver more effective and efficient digitally enabled services.
But what is RPA, and how is the health sector utilising it? Robotic process automation (RPA) is defined by research firm Frost & Sullivan as “the use of software that incorporates technologies like artificial intelligence, and machine-learning to automate routine, high-volume tasks that are sensitive to human error”.
This means unlike in an industrial or manufacturing process, the term robot in the service industry is metaphorical, since there is no robot actually doing it.
Instead, software has been developed to perform processes in an automated way so it can execute repetitive, high-volume tasks that a human usually performs.
Robots are designed to follow pre-defined processes, executing them with greater accuracy and speed compared to their human co-workers. RPA forms part of a broader strategy of intelligent automation where the service value chain becomes far more integrated, leveraging off other inputs including artificial intelligence.
It is all about optimising the service delivery to meet the needs of customers.
Here are areas where RPA is thriving: member on-boarding and underwriting, credit control and the management of member debt, claims processing, benefit pre-authorisation and case management, tariff loading and data transformation between systems. “Bots” are already doing it in the form of robotic process automation software.
The application of RPA is not just suited to the administrative processes within health-care administration. It is also suited to support functions such as human resource management, and the automation of on-boarding new employees.
While visiting University Hospitals Birmingham as guest of the UK’s National Health Service, I observed how patient data was loaded from a local facility system into the central patient registry. They also successfully used RPA to load data from an outpatient kiosk check-in system to their patient admission system, without having to do any system integration.
These are all automating repetitive procedures that are the same all the time. Where there is a need for judgement, decision-making and communication skills, human intervention and support is still needed.
RPA frees workers for the kinds of tasks that are uniquely human, like face-to-face interactions where a personal touch and compassion is required. Humans can interact with customers and suppliers while the clerical tasks can be assigned to the robotic software.
Humans are now “upgraded” to a supervisory level – managing and supervising the tasks that “bots” perform and assisting with tasks that require cognitive skills.
There also are other added benefits of robotic software such as fewer errors and longer hours of production. This saves time and resources since the mundane and repetitive tasks are handled by robots and not humans, and can be designed to speed up work.
Robotics software simply follows the steps in the process that a human would follow.
By deploying “bots”, the mundane manual tasks are automated through the virtual workforce, thus freeing up employees to focus on work that adds value to the business and its clients.
The benefits of RPA:
Human capacity is freed to perform tasks that require cognitive skills that “bots” cannot provide. In essence this enables an organisation to improve its service delivery from the perspective of speed of execution, fewer human errors, and more personalised service where required.
There are enhanced operational efficiencies, and reduced cost of delivering a service. Not only does this ensure sustainability of the organisation, but it also positions the organisation to provider cost-effective, scalable services which enable growth into the future.
Increased job satisfaction for the employees of the company.
The workload pressures increase year-on-year, client requirements become more demanding, business solutions become more complex with increasing numbers of manual workarounds. People fear making errors, and job satisfaction declines. Reduced absenteeism and improved productivity.
According to feedback from employees in the operational areas, the manual repetitive work no longer adds purpose to their role and they feel like they could contribute so much more if the systems just automated these processes.
Frost & Sullivan confirm that the benefits include:
Increased security, particularly when handling sensitive information that could be compromised by human agents or social engineering attempts by fraudsters.
Greater regulatory compliance.
Reduced need to upgrade or replace legacy systems.
Greater employee satisfaction, leading to less turnover.
For us at AfroCentric Group and Medsheme, the roll out of RPA first went live nearly two years ago within our Cape Town-based hospital claims-assessing division. The robotic operating model has been developed over time and resides in the business support solution team.
The platform is considered to be a business tool, driven by the business but managed and implemented in close partnership with our IT division as part of our broader digital strategy.
The RPA system has become a powerful tool in process automation.
There is little doubt that it is key to enabling a digital workforce where services are optimised, and customers experience faster and more agile service delivery.
RPA has many uses and can be adopted across all types of health-care administration. It has the potential to not only enhance administrative services, but also address patient safety and enable timeous access to health-care.
Integrated with artificial intelligence and machine learning, one can expect to see the evolution of new digitally enabled health-care delivery models emerging in the near future.
Andrew Wright is executive manager for shared and support services, and intelligent automation project leader at Medscheme, a subsidiary of the AfroCentric Group.