We needed to have a look at this, and see what the art of the possible is for us
“Is my job safe? Will it make us redundant?”
Dr Lloyd McCann, CEO of Mercy Radiology and Clinics and head of digital health for Healthcare Holdings, frankly admits these questions popped up when he told his staff they were deploying robotic process automation (RPA).
“We have known about RPA,” says McCann. “It has always been on the radar. It is a technology and a solution that we haven’t paid much attention to.”
Through them, he learned how the bank already had a “very mature, well developed RPA programme”.
“I thought then that we needed to have a look at this, and see what the art of the possible is for us as an organisation,” he shares.
This was how he led Mercy Radiology and Clinics to deploy RPA in one of its functions, finance.
Healthcare Holdings, its parent company, worked with RPA specialist Virtual Blue, and identified eight processes suitable for automation.
McCann says the finance department was the first area they looked at, as this function had a huge amount of manual, repetitive processes including claims, financials, and requirements from Inland Revenue.
One of these was around ACC invoicing and receipting.
ACC is invoiced for patient scans and tests covered as part of ACC claims, with Mercy Radiology paid directly by ACC.
We now have a great human workforce, and we have also started building the virtual workforce that will help us manage our growth sustainably
The payment is made once Mercy Radiology uploads the ACC invoices to the ACC site and the claim has been accepted by ACC and all relevant processes have been completed.
The team used to upload the information every week to ACC. Once ACC has approved the invoice, they would send back the remit, with Mercy’s team then going through the receipting process of receiving the payment through the system.
In six weeks, the team from Virtual Blue developed a software robot to automate the process using Blue Prism technology
The all-female finance team led by Sylvia Young decided to call their new co-worker ‘Matilda’.
Today, Matilda manages majority of ACC invoicing and receipting for Mercy Radiology, with staff called on to manage business exceptions.
McCann says Matilda completes in two hours what normally took two people three to five hours a day to finish.
“We are scoping out a few other processes,” he says.
‘Matilda’ completes in two hours what normally took two people three to five hours a day to finish
He adds that the work they have done with Virtual Blue showed them they can expand RPA to their processing with private funders, and beyond finance. “Some administrative processes as well are ripe for automation.”
According to McCann, they are also looking at deploying the software on their invoicing and receipting processes with the district health boards (DHBs) the Ministry of Health.
The robotics quotient
Mercy Radiology’s foray into RPA supports observations from analyst firms on the technology’s continuous penetration across functions, particularly in finance.
Gartner says robotic process automation (RPA) software revenue grew 63.1 per cent in 2018 to $846 million, making it the fastest-growing segment of the global enterprise software market.
Gartner also points out RPA emulates human activity — keyboard and mouse input — in addition to purely programmatic operations. RPA can thus take over repetitive, monotonous tasks from human workers.
Although RPA software can be found in all industries, the biggest adopters are banks, insurance companies, telcos, and utility companies, reports Gartner. These organisations traditionally have many legacy systems and choose RPA solutions to ensure integration functionality.
According to Gartner, RPA is currently being used by just 19 per cent of finance departments, but this number is expected to grow to 73 per cent by 2020.
While short-term benefits are centred on employee engagement and avoided rework, additional benefits of RPA are accumulated over time. These include a significant reshaping of the workforce, as full-time employees are redeployed from repetitive, manual tasks to higher-value tasks, notes Gartner.
Forrester, meanwhile, calls on companies to build their ‘robotics quotient’ or RQ as compared to EQ, which is about how emotionally capable employees are in engaging, influencing, and working with other humans.
“RQ is the critical next step,” says Forrester. “How well can humans work with and sometimes for, robots that will play a more sizeable impact in day-to-day work life?”
There were no surprises, as well, when McCann looked outside his respective sector for business technologies that can impact the organisation.
McCann used to be one of NZ Trade and Enterprise's Beachheads advisors. This is a network of private sector experts experienced in running international businesses and who share their insights to Kiwi businesses that want to grow internationally.
“I worked mainly within the health space but the exposure to things outside of health was awesome,” he explains. “You learn so much, that there are so many transferable principles from other industries to bring into health.”
“Just the exposure to how some of those networks work and operate was really beneficial for me,” he states, citing his discussions with the other Beachheads advisors such as Morag McCay and Stefan Preston. “They have done and achieved so much...that you just learn having a conversation with them.”
Looking outside one’s sector, he says, “is something we need to get better in health.”
“We think of health as special,” he says, smiling, “but we are as special as every other industry, right?”
There was another overriding reason for McCann to look deeper at emerging technologies to uplift the organisation.
“We are growing rapidly, so that is a good news story,” he adds.
At the same time, he states, “We wanted to be creative about how we support that massive growth and continue to grow sustainably.
“Yes, given the rate we were growing, it was either we invest in more people, or we invest in a virtual workforce.”
“We are also physically bursting at the seams, so we’d need to find a space for that new staff member to work from, whereas Matilda does not need her own desk,” he says.
With Matilda, the existing roles did not change, at least not their titles.
Due to the extra time released through the work of Matilda, however, McCann says they were able to form a training team that now goes to all of their branches.
This training team helps the administrators and clinical staff manage the workflow and train them on their data entry requirements.
There are so many transferable principles from other industries to bring into health
He adds further that, “The finance teams have utilised the time much more productively, which means better training, and less errors from the frontline staff. Which, ultimately, means people can spend more time with patients, which is what we are all about.”
McCann notes, “That makes a huge difference because the invoices that go to ACC are more accurate, so that has had an impact on our cash flow because we have moved the process from weekly to daily.”
“We have diversified our workforce approach,” he says. “We now have a great human workforce, and we have also started building the virtual workforce that will help us manage our growth sustainably.”
“The team needed to be engaged in, to own the process from the get go,” he says, on what worked well with the deployment.
“They were the key architects behind how Matilda got designed,” he says.
“And, given the amount of other work we needed the team to do, their jobs are safe, because it is about value add activities rather than doing manual, repetitive tasks."
“One of the key benefits by diversifying your workforce is you are actually spreading your risk because it is more than just the people that can be trained and retrained,” says McCann.
He stresses that, “We need to be sure that we are spreading that institutional knowledge, whether it is across to more people or the virtual workforce.”
“Those are some of the key benefits that people probably don’t think about when they are looking at a technology like this.”
As to key pointers for organisations in health or other sectors, he states: “The first thing I would say is RPA has probably got to the point now that it is a mature technology.”
McCann adds that, “It is also mature to the point where it is very accessible, it used to be a high cost intervention, it is now a reasonable cost intervention.”
He is already looking ahead at the growing role other disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence and augmented intelligence, will play in health.
“There are lots of issues and challenges we need to get our heads around,” he says. “Ethical issues, access issues, and around some of these algorithms that are potentially exacerbating inequity because of the data sets they were built on.”
“But I think despite all of those risks, there is such a huge opportunity to really add value to consumers and patients,” he states. “We have got to get our heads around on how we manage those risks, and actually start deploying some of these technologies.”
One of the main elements of RPA deployment is governance in the change management space, observes Sam Osborne, managing director at Virtual Blue.
“It is about having a clear vision at the executive level what you are trying to achieve.”
“Once people understand what robotics is and you take the fear factor away, success for an organisation looks like creating your own internal momentum," says Osborne. "You want people to come and say well if it can do that, can it do this?”
McCann, for his part, emphasises, “Again, the benefits not only to customers or the patients, but the workforce itself, will be quite significant.”
“If we can get people focusing on what really matters and really add value and get algorithms doing the data analytics, the processing... then we are on to a winner.”
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