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This article is part of our Essential Guide: Essential Guide: How APAC firms can ride out the pandemic

NUHS taps RPA in Covid-19 swab tests

Singapore’s National University Health System deploys RPA bots to automate patient registration during Covid-19 swab tests as part of broader efforts to improve efficiency

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Asia-Pacific: CW APAC: Buyer’s guide to robotic process automation

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in April 2020, Singapore’s health authorities had to step up testing efforts, particularly at foreign worker dormitories that were most affected by the outbreak.

More than 1,000 Covid-19 tests had to be administered daily, with patient information and swab test results manually entered into Singapore’s national electronic health record (NEHR) system. 

Lily Loo, director at National University Health System (NUHS), one of the healthcare organisations involved in Singapore’s swab testing efforts, said this process was very tedious for medical workers, prompting the healthcare group to turn to robotic process automation (RPA) to improve efficiency.

It worked with its technology service provider, Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS), to deploy an RPA solution from Blue Prism that would automate and facilitate the administration of Covid-19 swab patient records in an SAP system, before sending the test results to the NEHR.

“We were on a tight timeline as the swab tests had to be done daily,” Loo said. “Each day, we would go onsite to places like hotels to register patients, administer the tests and the backlog was piling up.”

After assembling a lean team of six people including representatives from operations and IT, Loo worked with her colleagues to identify data fields that could be filled in by default, before deploying an RPA bot to automate the patient registration process.

The project went live in just six days, and the team was able to reduce patient registration time from two minutes to just 30 seconds. “In over two months, we did 72,000 registrations with time savings of about 282 man-days,” Loo said.

This was not the first time that NUHS is using RPA to automate work processes. Its journey started as early as 2018 when it conducted a proof-of-concept to test the use of RPA in back-office functions.

Since then, NUHS has been using RPA to automate bill adjustments and claims processing. This has freed up employees to work on higher value initiatives and tasks such as billing transformation and bot enhancement, Loo said.

While NUHS’s staff now find their work more fruitful than when they were performing data entry tasks, that was not always the case.

“In healthcare, a lot of staff are very experienced, and they can be a little reluctant to change because they are worried about bots taking over their jobs,” Loo said. “So, when we embarked on RPA, we told the staff that their jobs would not be replaced and that they would be upskilling their expertise.”

NUHS also took the opportunity to streamline business processes across the healthcare institutions under its charge to improve workflow efficiency, as well as to create reusable processes across business functions.

With data security being a top priority for healthcare institutions, NUHS runs its bots off a private cloud operated by IHiS. Each bot’s credentials are encrypted and every single step the bot takes is recorded and encrypted in a non-repudiable database.

For now, Loo said NUHS staff are not able to make changes to the bots due to security considerations, though she would like to build an internal business team to make small changes to the bots in the long term. “We aren’t there yet, as we are still quite new to RPA at the moment,” she added.

According to a Forrester survey of 45 companies in Australia, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Singapore, the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region has been a growth engine for RPA in recent years, accounting for about 17% of the global market.

Particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic, firms both large and small have shown interest in automation. However, it noted that companies continue to face challenges of scale and some region-specific obstacles along the path to maturity.

Forrester also noted that automation-fuelled transformation remains elusive in the region, where the use of automation remains largely an efficiency and cost takeout play rather than a transformation play.

Read more about RPA in Singapore

  • Almost three-quarters of Singapore business leaders say their organisations are facing difficulties in scaling up their implementations of robotic process automation.
  • IDC monitored the automation projects of over 30 early adopters of RPA in financial services and found that most were unable to scale up their implementations of the technology.
  • Singtel is empowering employees with the skills to create their own RPA bots to improve their productivity.
  • Singapore startup AntWorks hopes to lower the cost of deploying and maintaining robotic process automation technology with a platform that combines machine learning and data processing capabilities.

Read more on Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics

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