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How automation has helped the fight against Covid-19

The pandemic has shown that AI-driven digital solutions will be at the heart of our future healthcare

The Covid-19 crisis accelerated digitalisation across many sectors. Very early on in the pandemic, auditing firm EY reported1 that almost half of company bosses in 45 countries were speeding up plans to automate their businesses in order to manage new working practices. 

Automation also proved a vital tool for health services and medical researchers during the pandemic. When the vaccination process started in Scotland, it was done manually by GPs and surgeries, says Shakira Talbot, ServiceNow’s Sales Director in the public sector and regulated markets, “Patients who cancelled their appointments had to start the booking process over again.” 

Working with digital workflow solutions company ServiceNow, NHS Scotland moved fast to build a system to manage its national vaccination programme, integrating national data with local GP records to create a consistent, dynamic workflow. Built in just six weeks, NHS Scotland’s vaccine management system allows users to book their own appointments through a Citizen Portal. The software scheduled an impressive 220,000 vaccination appointments in the first 12 hours2. 

Intelligent use of data has also enabled hospitals to reallocate equipment and resources to where they’re needed most, says Talbot. “So you don’t have a situation where surgeons are without masks or staff in intensive care are having to reuse equipment.”

Digital automation has many applications beyond resource management. Clinicians are using artificial intelligence (AI) on large data sets to look for disease patterns or common features to drive preventative medicine and the smarter application of drugs and better-targeted use of specialist staff. AI-driven image analysis helps diagnose and monitor the progression of Covid-19, and can also alert prescribing doctors of potential drug interactions and side effects. “We’ve seen so many different drugs we wouldn’t even think could be used for Covid,” says Talbot, “and we’ve been able to look at infection peaks and reallocate specialists who can deal with, say, respiratory illnesses.” 

The pandemic also spurred more phone and video consultations in primary and secondary care, greater adoption of devices and apps for remote working at home (including as part of virtual wards), increased uptake of the Electronic Prescription Service and a surge in use both of the NHS website and NHS 111 online. Within the NHS workflow itself, there’s been an uptake of newer technologies such as video conferencing software to enable remote working and collaboration, including professional-to-professional support for clinical decision-making. 

The pandemic has been something of a force multiplier for tech, says Talbot. “There was a misconception about what technology can do. Given the pedigree and legacy of the NHS as being personalised, naturally the idea of giving up some of that has been difficult.” She adds, “Sometimes you do want to see someone face to face, but now you can have a video call with your GP through the conferencing service or a WhatsApp appointment. All of these changes have moved us on significantly from where we were pre-pandemic.” 

Management consultancy McKinsey & Company estimates that by 2050 one in four people in Europe and North America could be over the age of 65.3 Efficiency is more necessary than ever. “We all care about saving lives,” Talbot says, “and people have really started to see it as an enabler. To have clinicians and NHS workers focused on the real value-added areas and tasks that help save lives — why would people not want it?” 

Nonetheless there are still some barriers to user adoption that need to be overcome. “New systems need training, and providers and partners need to provide intuitive technology or a very robust training programme,” says Talbot. “Covid has made that difficult, of course, and time has been the critical indicator. Some of these systems are complex and have a lot of data integrations and feeds from multiple other systems.” 

The mobile revolution has set new standards, and new technology has raised the expectations of patients and clinicians alike. “Most people have a device of some sort,” Talbot says. “The ability to do most of your work on a smartphone is key, as is the ability to have notifications and have that integrated into your calendar.” 

There have been significant lessons learned during the pandemic. “Some of the biggest challenges that the NHS faces concern procurement times,” Talbot adds. “This has shown we can be agile and we should remove some of the red tape. If you’re saving time, you’re saving lives.”

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