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The Emergence of RPA Amidst COVID-19: How Automation Can Save the Day

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January 11th, 2021

RPA has gotten a bad rap – at least to some IT leaders. It’s often been oversold. It’s also under-delivered. But in the wake of a global pandemic, supply shortages and subsequent vaccination protocols, now is the time to harness the power of automation in its new form.

IT leadership has an opportunity to proactively address organizational issues at a deeper level by exploring RPA that isn’t siloed to just one department. RPA certainly isn’t new – but the right combination of process refinement, innovation and automation can address the emerging issues facing healthcare including automation of repetitive, routine data entry and transfer; utilizing technology in the supply chain and delivery; and augmenting humans in critical public health matters like vaccine distribution and tracking.

 

Reducing Supply Chain Inefficiency

Healthcare organizations walk a fine line between profit and loss. One way organizations control costs is to avoid stockpiling and order on an “as needed” basis – which identifies when and how much to order based on historic usage plus a percentage as a buffer, just in case. In normal times, this model has been effective.

Then COVID-19 came along and turned this model upside down, showing the inherent problems in the process. Global supply chains were shut down, and those that were operational faced delays. It was a race to obtain critical PPE, with limited resources and purchasing abilities. Supply chain employees were working around the clock to obtain these resources, causing decreased morale and increasing burnout because no matter what they did, it didn’t feel like enough.

Supply chain management can draw a host of benefits from RPA. In particular, automation can eliminate or greatly reduce the human element of logging in and monitoring third-party distributor portals, government supply portals and other outside portals individually to search and purchase critical PPE. RPA can be programmed to do these tasks, and more, around the clock.

With the minutiae handled by technology, staff can spend more time focusing on critical on-site tasks like ensuring supplies within the organization are in the correct departments, inventory is correct in each closet and the front-line clinicians have what they need to protect themselves as they serve their patients. By leveraging RPA, healthcare organizations ultimately free up supply chain staff to serve the organization’s mission of serving the patients and contributing to care during a crisis.

 

Facilitating Vaccine Distribution and Implementation

One of the most intriguing adaptations of RPA is to address the urgent need to prepare for vaccine distribution. RPA is already in use in some organizations to help with appointment creation and patient registration, helping limited staff to quickly and efficiently get the vaccine out to the public. The same RPA technology has a myriad of other innovative uses in vaccine distribution as well. Some of those include moving data between systems, both internally and externally, to provide readily-available information about cold storage units, supply quantities, public health data and other information critical in the quick and efficient distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as future vaccines down the line.

One potential area for a bottleneck in distribution and recording is the transfer of information from EHRs to state/national public health databases. With interoperability still on the horizon, moving information from one system to another can create another manual process that will need to be created, trained, staffed and managed. Adding the human element can also mean potential delays or inaccuracies.

A recent study in Wisconsin looking at influenza immunizations demonstrated that the timeliness of data transfer between the EHR and the state’s database was significantly improved by automated entry (RPA) over manual (human) entry (Hayney et al. 2020), and it is safe to assume that the same will hold true for COVID-19 immunizations.

Delays in the transfer of data from one system to another can create a domino-effect of consequences for organizations and patients alike. Because distribution is on a state level, inaccurate reporting data could mean losing your place in line to get additional vaccines for your community. Additionally, employers may mandate the vaccine, meaning that if immunization information is not in the state system, some recipients of the vaccine may not be able to work.

Utilizing RPA to bridge the data transfer gap between the EHR and other systems allows for ongoing transfer of data with higher accuracy and decreasing the burnout of staff that would normally be tasked with repetitively entering data.

 

Another Look at RPA for Revenue Cycle Management (RCM)

RCM is the most common use of RPA in a healthcare organization – and just one more reason to adopt RPA now. With budget cuts and departmental restructuring within the financial back office, RCM staff is challenged to do more with less resources, and with increased accuracy – because every dollar counts. Ultimately, the repetitive, detail-oriented nature of this work can leave many RCM employees facing increased burnout.

A 2018 Harvard Business Review study closely examined more than 80,000 health care personnel, both clinical and non-clinical, to understand burnout. This report touts that non-clinical workers need to feel like their work is meaningful, not mundane or tedious, in order to feel satisfaction. HBR states: “Many of these personnel could have built a career in another industry, but they have chosen healthcare. This underscores how important it is for this group to feel tied to the mission of care, for their own well-being.” This ultimately leaves leadership to answer how their staff can be utilized to a higher degree, helping decrease burnout while creating a more efficient, effective revenue cycle.

With the shift in organizational priorities and the need for more revenue, IT and finance leaders are taking a second look at RCM. Many repetitive, tedious tasks can be easily handled by RPA, such as reducing insurance processing time, connecting to third-party websites and portals to gather relevant data or even patient check-ins. RPA ultimately shifts the paradigm on busywork to be an automated process rather than expecting a human to work flawlessly 24/7 without breaks or time off. Automation has a double benefit in that it takes the most basic tasks off the plates of creative, intelligent employees and utilizes technology to handle mundane tasks with increased accuracy, lower training time and far less overall cost.

 

Why Now, During a Pandemic?

In a pre-COVID-19 world, process change took time. During the pandemic, effectively managing change has been the only way to continue to survive. Adopting a tool like RPA that is versatile and adaptable to multiple departments and use cases can save time and money while reducing overall burnout of precious human capital. Having RPA in your IT arsenal also empowers your team to innovate and create solutions to solve inherent holes in processes, without bringing on a multitude of one-off technologies to implement and manage.

Databound’s EMUE RPA is adaptive automation created with Cerner Millennium in mind but is also adaptable to a variety of other legacy and terminal systems and EHRs. EMUE was conceived in response to in-house automation which can be limited or inflexible, or to address single-use RPA products that require IT to only apply automation to very narrow use cases. For less than one FTE, EMUE can provide you with a solution that spans a variety of departments with one tool – decreasing your management time and increasing results. Reach out today for additional use cases for RPA and how a second look at RPA can help transform your organization.

Written by Kelly Blackmon - EMUE Product Manager

Kelly Blackmon - EMUE Product Manager

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