ARTIFICIAL intelligence is often portrayed as something to be feared.

But when used properly, it can combat many of the problems we experience as part of an ever-expanding population.

Nowhere is the strain more keenly felt than in our healthcare system.

So how can AI help to ease the burden?

Darren Atkins, chief technology officer at East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, has the answer.

Using virtual robots, he is not only saving the NHS hundreds of thousands of pounds, but he is offering a helping hand to under-strain staff.

His team is the first to implement Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in hospitals and he is doing it right here in Colchester.

Put simply, RPA uses software alongside AI to handle high-volume, repeatable tasks which previously required humans to perform.

Mr Atkins says the project was not easy to get off the ground.

As is so often the case, people were sceptical about giving more responsibility to AI.

He said: “I didn’t have the buy-in from the board, something that is critical to any transformation programme. 

“The issue was no-one had really seen RPA being used in healthcare, so I had nothing to use to reassure senior leadership it would work.”

Mr Atkins swayed the board after discovering an automation platform created by tech firm Thoughtonomy, which uses Microsoft software to make deploying the virtual robots easier.

He said: “We bought the platform and it was up and running within just three days.

“Suddenly, I had five robots ready to help us, so the first thing I did was a pilot study for invoice processing in our finance team. 

"Within the first month we released around 300 hours. 

“By month 12, we were releasing about 4,500 hours a month.

“That is a lot of time saved and a proof point I could then take to the rest of the organisation.”

A successful pilot programme has automated the trust’s GP e-referrals process, which deals with up to 2,000 incoming referrals every week.

Virtual robots are working behind the scenes in the patient records system, re-allocating appointments when a patient texts in to cancel.

This scheme is projected to save £1.5 million in a single year and will offer an additional 15,000 appointments to patients.

In the trust’s cardio-respiratory department, automation is now being used to book diagnostic procedures.

This is saving the team up to four hours every day.

Since July last year, virtual robots have given 16,000 hours back to the trust’s workforce.

The virtual robots are set to be used to process maternity self-referrals, assist with the management of thyroid patients, conduct clinical audits and support the human resources department with recruiting new staff.

Part of the fear surrounding the use of AI stems from the 
mystery which shrouds its future.

How will it be used in years to come and what are its limits?

Mr Atkins said: “There have been some good successes with AI in health already, but these tend to primarily be in specialist areas, like cancer pathways and diagnostic reporting.

“What is vital is that we apply it in a measured, governed and non-biased way.

“We know AI fits somewhere in the future, but I do not think we can predict right now exactly where it is going to take us.”

People will naturally fear such advances will take their toll on people’s jobs and livelihoods.

But Mr Atkins is clear on this point.

His team’s project is simply about freeing up time for staff to focus on the most important part of their role - the patients.

He said: “This is the NHS, so things do not tend to move fast.

“The way I have adopted RPA at the moment is not about doing massive transformational change, it is about automating existing processes to make them a lot faster and free up staff from the parts of their roles they enjoy least. 

“That is an easy and attractive message to understand and means people do not see it as a threat to their job. 

“I also spend a lot of time with staff to watch how they work and really understand the opportunities at the coal face. 

“They are the ones struggling with inefficiencies that are sometimes invisible to service managers and leadership. 

“If you do not create a culture that means people embrace, participate in and experience the real value of the technology, they are not going to come up with ideas for how to make it better.

“If a patient spends one less minute queuing up to pay for their car park ticket because we have automated it, that is time they can spend with their doctor getting the help they need.”

The trust’s automation and AI team was shortlisted at this year’s NHS Parliamentary Awards and more recently scooped the Time Matters accolade at the Team East Suffolk and North Essex Hospital Trust awards.