Is the NHS thinking big enough with its automation strategy?

E-rostering in the NHS will hugely benefit staff. But does it go far enough?

The NHS has announced a £7.5m fund to support the transition of hospital rostering onto digital E-rostering software. As the NHS E-rostering guidance states:

“Staff are our biggest asset, and NHS provider organisations have an obligation to strike the right balance between patient safety, cost and efficiency. Used the right way, E-rostering can influence culture change and give staff the evidence they need to make changes at the front line.”

So what practical benefits will this technology provide?

Creating staff rosters can be an incredibly time consuming and complex process, especially for organisations that are as complex and critical as hospitals. E-rostering takes away huge amounts of manual work by automating scheduling, notifying staff of their shifts and allowing staff to interact directly with the application to log time off or cover shift changes - often by text message or email.

Importantly though, it also allows the collection and analysis of staffing data that can help management to review resource usage and drive efficiencies, resulting in better experiences for both staff and patients.

But is this all that can be done to improve the rostering process? Is the application’s automation enough, or can Intelligent Automation also be used to lighten the load even further?

Application automation vs Intelligent Automation

The distinction I’m making here between automation within the E-rostering application and Intelligent Automation is one of internal vs external.

Automation is the tool’s own capability to perform automated tasks internally. This activity is limited by the interactions the software creator has foreseen - for example interacting with Google calendar to create an event, or interacting with an email client to send a template email. When we consider the automation within staff scheduling in the NHS, it refers to the capability of the E-rostering application to schedule complex staff rotas at the press of a button, following the rules it has been given to provide an output.

Intelligent Automation (also referred to as utilising a ‘Digital Worker’ or ‘Bot’) on the other hand uses a separate external automation tool to perform tasks across different applications. The digital worker often uses the same User Interface (UI) as a person does - clicking buttons, entering text etc. - and essentially bridges the gaps between these applications.

This distinction is important, because even with E-rostering in place, inevitable manual elements will remain in the end-to-end process of rostering staff.

Hospital executives will need to find answers to a range of different questions, such as:

  • How does the staff information get into the E-rostering system in the first place?
  • How is this maintained as personnel come and go?
  • How are scheduling preferences and rules updated?

In the network of different systems each hospital uses (where each system will have its own UI), people are currently required to bridge the gaps.

A headache for HR

New Starters/Leavers processes are exemplary of the kinds of tasks HR teams will still have to manage when E-rostering is in place. These processes are often repetitive, high volume, and - if anything - have recently become longer and more complex as organisations have added more and more tools to their day-to-day operations. Such qualities make them ideal candidates for Intelligent Automation.

Digital workers can be trained to do exactly what their human counterparts have become accustomed to in these processes. They can take a new staff member's information from a spreadsheet, form or email, and - navigating between every application the staff member needs to use - enter the relevant information and parameters, setting them up in the right workgroups and permission levels.

Intelligent Automation can also be used to email departments or other companies in order to provide items like IT equipment, uniforms, and ID cards for new starters. These tasks can be time-consuming, time-sensitive, and require a high level of accuracy - making them perfect candidates for Intelligent Automation to guarantee results and alleviate staff workload. They're a really good illustrator of how Intelligent Automation can seamlessly fit around new E-rostering technology in the NHS.

Measuring implementation success

The bigger picture here is that the NHS is undertaking E-rostering as part of a drive to make better use of automation and technology, with a tier system for NHS Trusts to validate this work with appropriate metrics. The tiers are there to measure advancement, helping Trusts progress from procurement and deployment of an E-rostering system to provide a dedicated home to staff rotas, right up to to fully automated shift-scheduling and board-level accountability, audit and review of analytics.

It is in these upper tiers where data analytics are being utilised that the true benefit lies - giving the NHS a way to ensure the maximum value from the incredible range of staff they have, ensuring that under/overstaffing can be balanced out, helping to guarantee staff and patient satisfaction by solving capacity issues as well as maximising value for money from the budget.

IA could be of great use here in enabling fast and consistent deployment of E-rostering solutions without the need to train and then resource staff to fill the manual gaps in the process. This will enable staff to focus on the more personal elements and guide the direction that the integration of E-rostering is taking.

For example, by automating the starter/leaver process described above, administration teams can spend more time supporting the staff in their user experience of the tool itself, leading to higher percentages of staff feeling comfortable with the system and hopefully moving to earlier use of its more advanced features, and advancement up the tiers.

Why stop there?

E-rostering in the NHS is an ambitious and exciting announcement that will do a lot of good for staff and patients alike, and hopefully bring staff rostering procedure into the data science era. But why stop there?

Let’s hope that teams within the NHS Trusts are thinking even bigger with their deployment, making this part of a broader strategy to automate around these systems as well.

Intelligent Automation is so often an afterthought, a way to solve bottlenecks caused by the clunky integration of legacy systems and outdated manual processes, whilst the organisation awaits a better solution from the next software upgrade.

Forward-thinking organisations should have a more ambitious automation strategy - identifying candidates for automation before the bottlenecks appear, always thinking ‘does this need to be a manual process?’ and ‘could this be automated?’ whenever a business process is changed or updated. This, surely, is the key to maximising the benefit from targeted solutions such as E-rostering.

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Martin Griffith
Martin Griffith
IA Consultant

Martin is an Intelligent Automation specialist with a background in education. He is passionate about the capabilities of the technology and how it can be utilised to improve people's lives.

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