Changing perceptions: RPA replaces processes, not people

IMG 2814 (1)

Digital transformation has been a key driver in the healthcare industry for some time now. Technology has proven its power in streamlining access to essential services for patients time and time again. One of the most powerful technologies in this arena we’ve seen to date is robotic process automation (RPA), often used to remove time-consuming manual administrative tasks. However, outside of the technical sphere, there are plenty of different perspectives regarding the impact of such streamlining – with some wondering if RPA could have a potential impact on jobs.

In this edition of Community Opinion, Circle Health Group’s Head of Process Automation, Dan Smith, explores RPA’s standing in the healthcare industry from a people perspective. Diving into the role of automation and its impacts, as well as the future of this technology, Dan provides specialist insights into the realities of RPA utilisation.

Fear. For some of us, this is the driving emotion that sits on our shoulders and causes us to be casual observers in a complicated world. Such a world is full of opportunities, but they often come with a cost. A recent technological area that is evoking, in my opinion, an equal measure of fear and excitement (alongside a healthy dose of intrigue) is that of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI and automation have been touted as the next transformative period in human history, much like the first technological (industrial) revolution of the late 19th century - and the second technical revolution brought about by mass production and the internet in the 20th century.

In both of these transformational periods, the opportunity has been the same: a more efficient and cost-effective method by which we can expand economically. A way in which we can offer benefits to many, either through access to cheaper products or opportunities to learn new skills. With this came the risk of other skills becoming redundant, older technologies or ways of working becoming insignificant, and for some, a way of life fundamentally changing.

Early fears over the mass adoption of technology - where younger populations were glued to digital screens - were frowned upon, leading to a watering down of the traditional nuclear family. All of these negative views are seen through the lens of fear - fear of change or simply fear of the unknown. For others, this evolution is seen through an opportunistic lens. It stands to reason, then, that change occurs continuously, albeit at different rates. With that change, we create fear and opportunity. Which lens we choose to view this change through ultimately dictates how we respond to this change.

Just as past technologies have replaced inferior ones, leading to people changing the way they interact with the world, we now have the opportunity to embrace the next evolution. RPA offers such an opportunity yet continues to be held back in some domains by what can only be perceived as fear: the fear of robots taking over jobs.

We are typically intelligent beings, and our intelligence breaks down across several domains - the most interesting of which is our ability for independent creative thought. Computers, on the other hand (despite huge leaps in capability), are still largely limited to the logical or mathematical intelligence domain. Not only are they largely limited to this domain, but I would argue they excel in this domain.

Now that we slowly begin to accept that computers are largely better at such logical and mathematical tasks, we should consider how to take advantage of this. Imagine if they could replace all of the tasks we simply can’t or don’t wish to do. What about the tasks that require lots of different, complicated, and repetitive rules? Ones that don’t require any thinking, but that we bemoan turn us into robots. Why not let our robotic helpers help?

Just think of the time we get back. The question really is not about replacing people; it is more about replacing processes. By doing so, we have found a way to create more of the most precious resource we have: time. We must start to understand what makes us human and, as a result, embrace the tasks we - are as a social species - more successful at, and for most people, more strongly drawn to and derive greater reward from.

This is no better exemplified than within the healthcare sector, which, by its very nature, is the most emotive of services. We don’t want to talk to robots or have robots sitting behind a desk frantically typing away and clicking the mouse. It dehumanises care and turns our ailments into digital data points - rather than acknowledging the pain we feel. With this point, I am not suggesting we reduce the capturing of data about our ailments, far from it. The more data we have and the better structured it is, the greater the opportunity to transform this into vital healthcare information. Such information can then leverage the impact of both humans and artificial intelligence in continuing to push the boundaries of medical science.

Instead, I wish to keep the conversation flowing on how best to capture and process this data within a world that can now start to consume and create real benefits from it. What if the clinician attending to you only had to record the minimum amount of information which triggered a sequence of tasks all carried out by robotic process automation? Would that clinician not have more time to talk to you, engage with you and observe how you are impacted by your ill health? In doing so, perhaps draw out the subtle observational signs that, as clinicians, we are taught from day one as being so critical to accurate diagnosis.

The very skills that even the best computers need a whole host of additional sensors to do and still often miss the mark. Imagine the call centre agent who no longer needs to type and trigger actions or emails. Instead, those extra few minutes could be spent engaging with the caller or perhaps with the patient who is unable to engage with digital technologies or needs greater levels of patient-centric care or navigation. By allowing RPA to replace us in certain tasks, we create freedom or time to do other tasks that are best suited to our abilities.

We started this discussion with the word fear: fear of change, fear of letting go. This is all that holds us back. Will RPA replace people? Yes. Should it replace people? Yes, in certain processes, but in doing so, it frees those people to explore the creative thinking they are so capable of – all while creating the opportunity to add a new digital team member into the mix while empowering others to evolve the skills they possess. I am not naive to think some roles will, of course, become surplus to requirements, but every loss creates an opportunity - the opportunity to create and transform processes and dictate how these digital workers carry them out. Like with most risks, the best way to address them is to confront them head-on through the lens of opportunity.

Find out how RPA can revolutionise your organisation

Ready to eradicate rekeying and monotonous administrative tasks? Learn more about Automate, or get inspired with a library of real-life public sector use cases.