Guest Column | July 6, 2020

Tackling Physician Burnout: Using Robotic Process Automation To Offload Repetitive Tasks

By Vinil Menon, Sr. Vice President – Enterprise Applications and Rinkon Ningthoujam, Senior Healthcare Consultant, CitiusTech

EHRs Causing Frustration Among Doctors

Implementing an RPA initiative to ease physician workloads is easier than you might think.

Physician burnout is a major concern in the healthcare industry – 43.9 percent of U.S. physicians exhibited at least one symptom of burnout according to American Medical Association (AMA) research. One of the biggest contributors to burnout is the ever-increasing administrative burden from documentation, insurance authorizations, scheduling, and other non-clinical tasks. With the increased use of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in other industries, many believe it holds great promise for successfully reducing the administrative tasks that have such a negative impact on physicians. According to Gartner, RPA software revenue grew 63.1 percent in 2018 to $846 million, making it the fastest-growing segment of the global enterprise software market – and they predicted it would reach $1.3 billion in 2019.

RPA is software with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) capabilities that essentially automates rules-driven and repetitive tasks. By focusing on tasks that burden physicians, but don’t require human intuition, healthcare organizations can launch an RPA initiative for specific use cases, and then expand incrementally to gain benefits in efficiency, cost savings, accuracy, and improved care outcomes – all results that will contribute to higher physician satisfaction.

Understanding RPA Tools

According the Association of Intelligent Information Management (AIIM), RPA refers to software tools that partially or fully automate human activities that are manual, rule-based, and repetitive. They work by replicating the actions of a human as they interact with one or more software applications to perform tasks such as data entry, process standard transactions, or respond to simple customer service queries. For example, “chat bots,” which are becoming ubiquitous on websites, are almost always an RPA tool, not a human. These bots can handle the typical standard queries like “where is X on the website” or “how do I reset my password”. RPA tools are not replacements for the underlying business applications, but instead automate the already manual tasks of human workers.

Today’s RPA technology should not be confused with earlier approaches that used screen scraping and Extract Transform Load (ETL) tools. RPA goes beyond those basic capabilities by working across programs, applications, and websites to gather and present data in ways that facilitate the underlying processes. Using bots increases data accuracy and efficiency dramatically.

Identify Processes That Affect Physician Workloads

Getting started with an RPA initiative involves identifying the use cases that are the most straightforward and offer clear benefits. RPA works by mimicking end users’ actions using bots that take advantage of AI/ML and are deployed to repeat at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human. Healthcare organizations can identify beneficial use cases by looking for repetitive tasks, typically the same kinds of tasks that have historically been candidates for outsourcing to low-cost workforces, for example help desk, back office, and scheduling.

With physicians in mind, RPA can automate the administrative tasks related to prescription refills, patient notifications, follow-up scheduling and care coordination. RPA can eliminate human errors within these processes, such as communication barriers and inadequate information or data flow. For example, an organization might use RPA to more efficiently comb through patient records to identify social determinants of health for specific patient populations. With a fuller picture of their patients and less time spent on repetitive tasks, physicians will have more time for the patient-facing activities that can improve care outcomes.

Another area that often creates frustration for physicians and their office staff are revenue cycle tasks, such as patient registration and demographic data confirmation, scheduling, eligibility verification, prior authorization, and payment collection. An example of how RPA has been applied by a healthcare provider organization to these tasks is making billing edits that often result from ongoing rule and requirement changes. With 29 bots running 14 hours a day, an average of 4,000 records per day were processed – a dramatic improvement in speed, accuracy, and efficiency.

4 Steps To Implementing An RPA Initiative

With a set of potential use cases in mind, there are four steps to launch an initial RPA program that can then be optimized and expanded to increase the benefits to the organization. Many organizations engage consulting services for this process to augment the skills and expertise available within the organization.

  1. Set Project Objectives and Timeline: Begin by documenting all the potential use cases identified and conducting a deeper analysis of each with business goals and priorities, feasibility, complexity, and suitability for automation in mind. This will inform the selection of several use cases that offer the most promising results. Build out the project plan, timeline, including before and after performance metrics.
  2. Select Tools: Evaluate potential tools currently available considering the key capabilities, such as technology, usability, security, maintenance, cost, and deployment time. Selecting the best tool for your organization will depend largely on the make-up and skillset of your team, budget, and timeline.
  3. Design, Develop, Test and Deploy: Using RPA development tools and a development environment, design and develop the bots. Place specific focus on data integrity by documenting the data flows in conjunction with the end-to-end processes. RPA can help old and new systems work in sync, while ensuring data is not lost and processes run optimally. Thorough test plans for both unit and workflow testing are critical for each bot to assure everything works as expected prior to launch in the production environment.
  4. Monitor and Optimize: Monitor key performance indicators that will provide insight into the benefits gained as well as opportunities to optimize. For example, set a baseline for comparison to quantify manual labour savings, increased number of records processed, reduction in processing time, accuracy rates, process velocity, etc. In addition, include performance indicators for physician and other staff satisfaction to assess the impact on day-to-day work processes. With these metrics in place, the organization can assess and optimize the initial use cases and identify the next set of use cases to implement.

Unlocking RPA’s Potential

An RPA initiative can pay big dividends for healthcare organizations, especially with a focus on reducing repetitive administrative tasks that have such a negative impact on physician satisfaction. RPA has the unique ability to move seamlessly from one tool to the next, which can streamline processes and eliminate the manual steps in between each task. In addition, it lays the foundation for incorporating new technology solutions to deliver additional efficiency and productivity going forward. With a straightforward four-step approach, organizations can quickly launch an RPA initiative for specific use cases and then expand incrementally. In addition to increasing efficiency, reducing costs, and improving accuracy, RPA can have a tremendous positive impact on physician workloads. By directly reducing their administrative tasks and enabling them to spend more valuable time on care-related activities, physicians can focus on the more satisfying work of improving patient care outcomes.