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NHS trust uses automation and virtual workers to speed up referrals

East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation trust is using intelligent automation and virtual workers to monitor and process referrals from GPs in five of its specialist clinical units

East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust has cut down the processing time for GP referrals by using intelligent automation and virtual workers.  

The trust has teamed up with supplier Thoughtonomy, using its intelligent automation platform to speed up referrals. The trust has freed up more than 500 hours in the first three months of the project.  

The Thoughtonomy platform employs three virtual workers at Ipswich Hospital, who actively monitor the referrals coming in from GPs, 24 hours a day.  

When a referral comes in, the virtual worker reads it and extracts the reason for the referral, then collects all relevant referral data and clinical information from other sources, including test results, and merges it all together in a PDF document. The document is then uploaded into the trust’s systems using smartcard technology.

When clinicians arrive at work, they can review and grade the referrals.

The trust’s deputy director of ICT, Darren Atkins, said he was “delighted” with the results it had realised so far and “hugely excited” about the potential benefits of automating more processes across the trust.

“When you look at the time and cost savings we’ve already banked within just one specific area of our operations, you start to get an idea of how intelligent automation can drive transformation on a huge scale within the NHS,” said Atkins.

The referral process has been automated for five specialist clinical units, and the project has freed up more than 100 hours a week for the staff. Before implementing the intelligent automation platform, medical secretaries processed referrals manually.

Petr Pokorny, a staff grade neurologist at the trust, said it also allowed for a more “efficient, fluent flow of work” because it’s easier to deal with five referrals a day rather than 35 a week.

“What’s more, we now have our medical secretaries fully focused on the things that make a real difference to our staff and patients,” he said.

By September 2018, all acute NHS trusts had switched off paper referrals. 

From this month (October 2018), all GP practices are required to send their referrals electronically, using the electronic referral service, and NHS England has made compliance a requirement of the new GP contract

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