Juha Järvi, head of healthcare, Digital Workforce explains how automation can help in the fight against COVID-19.

As international lockdown measures persist, governments continue to face criticism over the rate of testing for Coronavirus. Global healthcare systems were facing challenges long before the virus outbreak, but are now being asked to provide even more, placing an increased strain on already under-funded, over-worked healthcare systems.

The coronaviruses’ high transmission rate has meant that countries around the world have identified mass testing as one of the best means of trying to control the spread of the disease. Countries like Germany and South Korea have been hailed for how their mass testing programs have enabled them to stem the spread of the virus and keep deaths at a low. However, mass testing on such a scale has proved to be a challenge for even the most advanced healthcare systems with only finite resources available to conduct and analyse tests. This is where automaton could play a pivotal role.

Automation to assist mass testing

Coined by the Head of the World Health Organisation, the imperative to ‘test, test, test’ has become somewhat of a slogan during this pandemic, and we now know how much of a vital part it can play in potentially loosening lockdown measures. The handling of lab results is one significant area where automation can help alleviate some of the pressure of mass testing and ensure the efficiencies that the healthcare system requires.

Rather than medical professionals sifting through thousands of results, digital workers can process and classify test results much faster and much more efficiently than humans can and Electronic Health Records (EHRs) can be updated with greater accuracy, as there is less capacity for human error. If the results are normal, an automated SMS can be sent to the person informing them. In the instances where results come back abnormal, this is then transferred to the appropriate doctor or nurse who will then take care of the next steps and follow up with the individual. By reliably eliminating the normal results from the abnormal, this allows healthcare professionals to solely focus their time on those who are in need of care and also continue to carry out further testing – accelerating the number of tests being delivered each day.

Investing in automation to free up frontline resources

In April last year, the UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, put his name to a report which found that automation could save the NHS an estimated £12.5 billion a year by increasing staff productivity. Fast forward to present day, while this figure is hugely appealing, it fails to represent the true value automation technologies can have on the healthcare system, especially in the current climate when resources are extremely stretched.

The healthcare sector is no stranger to this kind of innovation, but the question of ethics inevitably occurs. Applying automated processes is not about taking away human interaction or replacing staff members. In fact, it does quite the opposite. It enables doctors and nurses to focus on their highly skilled work with patients on the frontline, and removes the data-heavy, repetitive and time-consuming admin tasks from their ever-growing to-do lists.

For instance, in Finland, the country’s largest hospital district sought a solution to free up healthcare personnel from performing tedious back-office tasks. Digital workers now operate on the healthcare provider’s existing IT systems. They are given access only to the systems needed to perform the assigned operations, working around the clock, and performing processes in the same way as any remote human user would. In a way, it’s much safer than a human going into the system, because it has no interest in the data and eliminates the risk of human error.

Not only can automation help with freeing up healthcare professionals but implementing automation technology can also help ease some of the issues created by staff shortages. A report published towards the end of last year revealed that 90% of health leaders say that understaffing is putting patient safety and care at risk.

Automation technologies can be used to reallocate resources to fill gaps so that there is adequate cover for shifts in place when there are staff shortages. This in turn supports the frontline staff, ensuring they can continue to carry out their work to the best possible standard without having to spread themselves too thinly across multiple different tasks.

Future proofing heath care

Within the healthcare sector especially, the processes that work optimally are critical to results. The consequences of slow or inaccurate services can have a detrimental effect on patients’ wellbeing and how we ultimately tackle this virus.

As patient volumes grow, automation allows healthcare providers to scale flexibly to meet demand safely and sustainably. Automation mustn’t be viewed as an existential threat to our livelihoods and health, but a way of relieving the burden of burnout from menial tasks.

In years to come, the analysis of the coronavirus outbreak and the national and global responses will be extensive, and possibly a steep learning curve. However, one positive thing to come from this will undoubtedly be the recognition of the role that automated technology should play and will continue to play in the future for if, or when, the next pandemic strikes. Automation technology will not only help healthcare providers offer a better level of care amidst the Covid-19 crisis, it will help save lives and better prepare us for the future.