Technology has been a driving force in healthcare, causing organizations to revisit their current processes and implement new functionalities that streamline work. Enter robotic process automation.

What Is RPA?

Robotic process automation (RPA) has been a concept for many years. It is identified by the Institute of Robotic Process Automation as “the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a ‘robot’ to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems.” Typically viewed as an innovative technology, RPA is a compilation of three technological functionalities: screen scraping software, workflow automation and management tools, and artificial intelligence. 

Screen scraping software: According to the TechTarget website, this refers to “programming that translates between legacy application programs (written to communicate with generally obsolete input/output devices and user interfaces) and new user interfaces so that the logic and data associated with the legacy programs can continue to be used.” Screen scraping is sometimes called "advanced terminal emulation." 

Workflow automation and management tools: Richard T. Watson explains in Information Systems that “workflow automation” is a process that began in the 1920s during the industrial era and emergence of manufacturing. Workflow automation software can assist in order processing by capturing certain fields of interest, such as customer contact information, invoice total, and item ordered—translating them into your company’s database, and notifying the corresponding employee.   

Artificial intelligence (AI): Notwithstanding earlier advances in robotics, the term “artificial intelligence” was not coined until 1956 at the conference at Dartmouth College, explains W. B. Gevarter in the 1987 Chemical Engineering Progress article, “Introduction To Artificial Intelligence.” Humanity ’s Capability of Transcendence through Artificial Intelligence, a California State paper by Zena McCartney, further defines AI as the capability of computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intervention and intelligence. 

Current State of RPA

RPA, part of the larger business process outsourcing market, is still new and relatively small, but it is rapidly gaining traction as more organizations begin to understand the technology and its benefits. According to the Horses for Sources report by Fersht and Slaby, Robotic Automation Emerges as a Threat to Traditional Low Cost Outsourcing, the demand and expectations for automation have become more elevated than any other skill in the market today. Research by the authors shows that 65 percent of service buyers and 69 percent of provider professionals cite the need to understand and deploy automation is significantly increasing as a skill requirement. Likewise, 61 percent of advisors are feeling the pressure to “knowledge up,” they report.  

In terms of market size, IT Robotic Automation Market - Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends and Forecast 2014 - 2020 by Transparency Market Research expects the global IT robotic automation market to take a significant leap of 60.5 percent compound annual growth rate during the period between 2014 and 2020. The report estimates the global IT robotic automation market to be worth US$4.98 billion by 2020, compared to US$0.183 billion in 2013.

Is RPA Suitable for Healthcare?

The increase of RPA tasks in healthcare worries some organizations. Although RPA has higher-value IT tasks in its cross hairs, it could be the best antidote to outsourcing, says Bob Violino in the InfoWorld article, “Robotic Process Automation: The New IT Job Killer? 

Violino explains that the technology itself will provide opportunities because organizations will need people who are skilled in implementing, managing, and maintaining the programs. In fact, there is going to be a need for new skill sets in lower and middle management, for people who are able to work with RPA platforms and understand how to manage them. In addition, companies could move some of the displaced workers into more interesting and challenging types of jobs either in IT or other areas of the business. 

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No doubt, there will always be exceptions that fall out of the parameters covered by the robot. For instance, an organization might keep the staff where previously they would have been outsourced. “Regardless of how RPA plays out within organizations, it is likely the movement will touch on passions around the possibility of job loss or the need for new skills,” says Violino. “Companies will need to address these challenges in order to make a smooth transition to a more automated IT support infrastructure.” 

What’s more, RPA could create turmoil on a large scale as more organizations adopt the technology. A.J. Hanna, senior director of operations support at Ascension, tells Violino that “there are some natural resistances to the implementation of this type of technology, mostly around the potential impact on people.” 

“An RPA solution opens up more opportunities on or near shore than a traditional sourcing model, as well as creates new roles both for the sourced and retained organizations, in order to manage a fundamentally changed environment. In our experience, the passion around RPA has been solely positive and quite often readily embraced,” adds Sean Tinney, global head of innovation and transformation at Sutherland Global Services, in part 2 of the InfoWorld article.

Benefits of RPA

Early adopters of RPA includes healthcare providers, as well as insurance, manufacturing, and financial services. It is clear that for organizations in these industries, RPA will free up resources to aid with other tasks within the service line. 

But the benefits of RPA are not only financial. They also offer procedural and customer-based opportunities for performance improvement. For instance, key benefits customers can expect from leveraging robotics process automation include:

  • increases productivity and efficiency with the speed up of process
  • frees employees from simple, repetitive tasks to do higher-value work
  • increases accuracy
  • ensures better regulatory compliance
  • equips organizations to scale up or down
  • improves speed to market
  • enables 24x7 workflows
  • reduces costs for customers / increase margins for service providers. 

Keep in mind that monitoring the adoption and effectiveness of automated full-time equivalent (AFTEs) is imperative when defining and tracking automation-related savings targets. AFTE also is an extension of business process automation, in which automated script/process tools eliminate the need to hire staff for repetitive tasks. This sort of tracking provides insight into the overall success of automation initiatives and delivers proactive notifications on any deployment issues—freeing valuable personnel from constant and painstaking manual oversight. 

Bottom line: the capability to shift a large number of tasks to technology as well as scale up or down instantly based on need is helping companies of every size become more efficient and subsequently more competitive. 

My next post will examine challenges healthcare organizations will need to address in adopting RPA.