New Robots For Ipswich Hospital

8 October 2018, 17:13 | Updated: 8 October 2018, 17:15

Ipswich Hospital

Ipswich hospital has brought in robot medical secretaries to work alongside human staff, monitoring referrals from GPs.

In what is calimed to be a first for the NHS, the three so-called virtual workers at the hospital, run by East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Trust, are designed to free staff up from "mundane and repetitive" tasks so they can spend more time on patient care.

The software, built by automation technology company Thoughtonomy, extracts the reason for referral and supporting clinical information from disparate sources such as blood test results and scans, then puts these all in a single document which is flagged to the lead consultant for review and grading.

Prior to the automation program, medical secretaries were responsible for processing referrals manually, downloading and printing documents, which they then scanned into a new document.

The trust deals with around 2,000 referrals per week.

The intelligent automation program has been running since July and is initially being deployed in five specialist clinical units - neurology, cardiology, urology, nephrology and haematology.

Darren Atkins, the trust's deputy director of ICT, said the robots have already cut the time taken to process the first stage of each GP referral from 15-20 minutes down to five minutes.

He said that within the first three months of the program the trust has released more than 500 hours of medical secretaries' time.

The trust estimates it will save £220,000 in associated direct costs by July 2019.

"We're delighted with the results we've realised so far and are hugely excited about the potential benefits of automating more processes across our trust," said Mr Atkins.

"When you look at the time and cost savings we've already banked within just one specific area of our operations, you start to get an idea of how intelligent automation can drive transformation on a huge scale within the NHS."

The robots' actions are auditable and safeguards are built into the system, he said.

"I've been probably overcautious in the way this is being introduced ... as we don't want a referral to be mislaid," he added.

He said if a robot receives a duplicate referral from a GP after it has processed the first, it emails the medical secretary team "rather than just stopping working".

The technology uses the same information governance system as human staff, he said, adding: "It's the same level of security and data protection - no information leaves the trust site."

If the virtual workers had to be shut down, he said the human secretaries "would just go back to what they normally do".