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9 October 2018updated 25 Jul 2021 4:48am

NHS deploys digital receptionist programme that could save £220,000 per year

A new virtual platform can cut back on hundreds of hours of administrative work.

By Dorothy Musariri

The East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundations (ESNEFT) Trust has introduced an electronic receptionist programme , designed to streamline “time-consuming and inefficient processes”, in a move predicted to save around £220,000 in associated costs annually by July 2019.

The automated programme, built by Thoughtonomy, is the first of its kind within the NHS and it is currently being deployed across five specialist clinical units – neurology, urology, haematology, cardiology and nephrology – at Ipswich Hospital. 

The Thoughtonomy Virtual Workforce platform uses three virtual workers, which monitor incoming referrals from GPs throughout the day and extract the reason for referral.  The programme takes all the relevant information, such as blood test and scan results, before integrating everything into a single PDF document.

It then uploads the document to the trust’s administrative systems and alerts the lead consultant that the document is ready for review and grading. 

Prior to the introduction of the programme, medical secretaries were responsible for processing referrals manually, downloading and printing documents.

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Dr Petr Pokorny, a staff grade neurologist said the automation process allows for a “more efficient, fluent flow of work” and it gives secretaries time to focus on the things that “make a real difference to our staff and patients”.

Darren Atkins, deputy director of ICT at ESNEFT, said he is thrilled about the possible benefits of automating across the trust. “When you look at 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.”

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Jan Ingle, head of communications and external relations, added: “It has certainly given back staff time to spend with patients and to support clinicians.”

A trust such as ESNEFT deals with around 2,000 referral per week. Thanks to the programme, the trust released more than 500 hours of medical secretaries’ time within the first three months of its introduction. And the Institute of Public Policy Research suggests that long-term automation projects could save the healthcare service up to £12.5bn a year, which is 10 per cent of its total annual budget.

Terry Walby, chief executive and founder of Thoughtonomy, said: “Intelligent Automation has a massive role to play in streamline time-consuming and inefficient processes across the NHS.

“By absorbing a wide range of time-intensive, repetitive tasks, we can unburden staff from administration and allow them, instead, to focus on delivering the excellent quality of care upon which we all rely. 

 “We’re delighted to be working with forward-thinking NHS trusts, such as ESNEFT, who are championing the use of AI and automation technology in order to deliver real benefits to hardworking frontline staff while reducing costs. This, in turn, translates into a better patient experience for all.”