Building smarter healthcare in HK with intelligent automation

June 09, 2022 06:00
Photo: Blue Prism

That Hong Kong's healthcare system had been under enormous strain is no secret. By the end of March, the territory's COVID-19 numbers had peaked at more than 55,000 infections. Set against the city's ratio of two doctors per 1,000 patients, far below the ratio in Singapore and Japan (both at 2.5), the UK (3.0) and Australia (3.8), it becomes obvious that, all things remaining constant--an aging population, continued shortage of doctors and nurses and rising costs--Hong Kong's buckling healthcare system will need to deliver healthcare services in much smarter and more efficient ways.

These trends are reflected in the Hong Kong Hospital Authority's (HA) Strategic Plan 2022-2027, which lays out its vision for improving financial stability to "meet escalating service needs" through the development of smart care and smart hospitals, the nurturing of a smart workforce, and enhancing service supply.

As implied in the strategic plan, digital solutions underlying HA's initiatives will be powered, in part, by intelligent automation (IA) and robotics to further develop and improve services already in play, like telemedicine and telecare, but made smarter and efficient for the long haul.

How IA can be an enabler

Intelligent automation has been utilised by hospitals to resolve their common problems for a long time. IA enables hospitals and clinics to bring in digital workers—AI-fuelled software designed to model human roles—to execute rules-based tasks such as appointment bookings and referrals, which go a long way in improving operational excellence and the patient experience.

The National University Health System (NUHS) in Singapore is a great example of how IA is used to automate processes and improve overall operations. In 2018, NUHS started to automate their back-office functions, including claims processing and billing. NUHS has to complete approximately 40,000 bill adjustment requests each year, and through IA, they went from spending an average of three to four days turnaround for task completion to immediate turnaround. The use of IA helped NUHS process 75 percent of all requests, which improved the organisation’s cashflow contributing to an estimated US$350,000 savings across three years. Patients seeking reimbursement from their insurers and employers also enjoyed better experience.

At the height of the pandemic in April 2020, Singapore health authorities had to set up testing efforts, particularly at foreign worker dormitories, where more than 1,000 COVID-19 tests were administered each day. It was a pressing period when the pandemic was spreading fast, and NUHS was under great pressure to register, test, and share the results quickly across the network. NUHS needed to speed up this process.

NUHS leveraged IA in the form of digital workers to improve the efficiency of this laborious process. The results were immediate as test registration time was reduced from two minutes to 30 seconds per test, saving NUHS 18 hours each day. Lab results also arrived more quickly, enabling NUHS to process more than 27,000 patients daily. In addition, as a measure to contain the spread of COVID-19 and relieve the load on the stretched healthcare workforce, NUHS leveraged on IA to build a digital patient portal where patients can be more self-served and empowered to take charge of their own health through smart portal and remote consultation.

Heralding a new era of healthcare

The global pandemic has opened avenues and accelerated new ways of working and operating in the healthcare sector. In a Blue Prism survey of more than 400 senior level healthcare professionals across the globe, 93 percent said that automation of processes accelerated because of COVID-19, with 58 percent of respondents replacing paper documents with electronic equivalents, and 57 percent taking the opportunity to build new, automated processes that improved the way they interact with patients and other departments. Almost half (45 percent) said they have replaced in-person consultations with video conferencing, a practice that is likely to continue in the years ahead.

In the UK, the vast majority of face-to-face consultations that were previously carried out daily shifted to remote consultations. The Royal College of General Practitioners revealed data corroborating this trend, with 71 percent of routine consultations being conducted remotely in the four week leading to mid April in 2020. Conversely, in the same period the year prior, 71 percent of patient meetings were face-to-face consultations.

Looking ahead, IA will play an increasingly greater role, with machine learning algorithms used to assess patient symptoms, as well as their behaviour, language and expressions. Collaboration technologies will also evolve so patient engagements are more natural and clinicians can pick up on nuances in interactions.

Clearly, the future is bright for the adoption of IA and digital solutions, with the healthcare sector a fertile ground for further deployments to drive greater sustainable healthcare for all. For its part, the Hong Kong Government has put special emphasis on healthcare technology with the setting up of InnoHK, a major initiative that houses 16 laboratories for global research collaboration, which also includes innovation in areas like artificial intelligence and robotics technologies.

More than ever, healthcare organizations are challenged to do more for patients with the same resources or less. By leveraging IA to power laborious and mundane processes while improving existing solutions like telehealth, it is possible for Hong Kong's healthcare systems to not only achieve financial sustainability but directly address issues around service availability so that doctors and nurses can finally be freed up to focus and care for patients with urgent medical needs.

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Blue Prism’s APAC CTO