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AI and automation empower New Zealand’s healthcare sector

Robots take the guesswork out of doctors’ handwriting at some of New Zealand’s medical clinics. These medical institutions believe that their usage of robotic process automation has been key in digitising mundane processes and better engaging customers—all without costing human jobs.

To put things into perspective, a doctor’s handwriting is a notoriously difficult read and has become something of a truism, but robotic process automation (RPA) can make short work of even the most indecipherable writing. That is the experience of 13 clinics, where the technology is achieving 98% accuracy rates when processing clinical referrals.

The medical practitioners say that it has often been difficult for their staff to transcribe clinician notes but giving the job to the robots resulted in fewer transcription errors and a process that has sped up remarkably. They said that the first robot, Matilda, was on-premises, but Matilda and their additional e-robot are now in the cloud, which has enabled more functionality, such as the use of optical character recognition technology to process referrals.

As robots can consume large amounts of data, they can scan all the clinic’s referrals and so it gives the AI all that data and it keeps learning and improving at a very rapid rate. So, when somebody writes an ‘I’ or an ‘E’ or an ‘R’, and the application has seen that several times, it is now well adept at recognising that that is the character that person has written down. It is the continuous learning loop and the ability to ingest huge amounts of data that makes it accurate, the medical practitioners say.

The Matilda robot now handles 98% of invoices automatically, and what previously took human workers eight to 10 hours, the robot completes it in two hours. This has allowed the medical institution to make invoices daily, instead of weekly, which has enhanced cash flow by NZ$200,000 per month.

However, the introduction of RPA originally caused some disquiet among staff, who were concerned that robots would replace them. The medical leaders say this is something all business leaders need to consider when introducing automation into the workflow. In the case of these clinics, there was a push to ensure people could be freed from mundane jobs to embark on more interesting high-value tasks. The tech adopters also said that they have not made anybody redundant, instead, they just repurposed and repackaged their team’s roles to make them evolve into a digital experienced team, that is focused on utilising technologies like RPA.

The clinics using the AI tech now consider themselves as a “bionic organisation”, by getting the best of people and digital technology. The clinics also see plenty of applications of RPA for the public healthcare sector — including with the COVID-19 response in the country. They added that the medical profession needs to recognise the commonalities, and in doing so embrace areas where automation can be used to make efficiencies and focus on the care of people, at the end of the day.

Accordingly, New Zealand’s Ministry of Health has developed a Health Technology Innovation Framework to provide direction to health technology innovators and guide the use of emerging health technologies in supporting a strong and equitable public health and disability system. This is a key part of the Digital Health Strategic Framework and the role of the Ministry.

For the Ministry, identifying a problem that needs solving is often the first step in health innovation. Some problems will be investigated by New Zealand’s many research institutes and universities. This then may result in solutions that use new health technology or services, that could influence change within the country’s current health practices.

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