Editor's note: Each month, the editors at SearchHealthIT recognize an innovative software, service or technology...
approach. Blue Prism is our October 2016 selection.
Product: Blue Prism
Release date: 2008
Imagine this: A healthcare organization has a fleet of 20 to 30 robots. One robot working for 24 hours can deliver the same amount of work as three or more people, freeing up staff to focus on other tasks that need to get done.
That's what Blue Prism's robotic process automation (RPA) technology offers. Although Blue Prism was originally launched in the financial industry, it has begun to make its way into another heavily regulated industry: healthcare. The technology is currently being used by St. Louis-based Ascension Health, the largest Catholic, nonprofit health system in the United States.
What Blue Prism does
Blue Prism's RPA technology, powered by Microsoft SQL and built on the Microsoft .NET framework, automates any application. The technology supports any platform including mainframe, Windows, Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and Java.
Blue Prism does not use code and does not hack into the backend of applications; it simply uses credentials to access applications just as a human employee would, said Alex Bentley, head of automation strategy at London-based Blue Prism.
In more conventional attempts to connect disparate systems, code would have to be written that would lay over all the applications information would need to be collected from and APIs would need to be built to allow all those systems and applications to interact, A.J. Hanna, executive director of the Ascension Ministry Service Center, which provides human resource, supply chain, and finance services to Ascension Health, explained.
Blue Prism is best suited for rules-based tasks and robots are trained just as humans would be trained for a job. You show the robot how to do a task, you show it all the different scenarios, then you test the robot and tweak anything that may be out of place.
"You build out a view of a best practice and then as you test it you watch the robot process it action by action and build in all the exception handling into the process," Bentley said. "Then if there's a process where the robot doesn't know, it will pass it to a human. Or if it's a common scenario then you can build it into the robot's process."
Once robots have been thoroughly trained in the organization's processes, the robots can be left alone to do their work. A human is not needed to operate them, Bentley said.
For Ascension Health, which began using Blue Prism's RPA technology in 2014, Hanna explained that they first identified the areas within the organization they thought would be best suited for automation. Then they translated the guiding documentation that is meant for a human associate into the Blue Prism process that they could then link together to create a process flow to handle transactions, Hanna said. "Part of that is allowing access to the systems, again, through the same type of user credentials that you would use for anyone else."
Hanna explained that there is some maintenance activity -- just watching the robots to make sure they're doing their job correctly -- and that they produce daily reports that show what the robots did in terms of transaction volume, to make sure the work is getting done, and to see if new rules and guidelines need to be built within the technology in order to address exceptions.
Why Blue Prism matters in healthcare
"I do think [RPA] has tremendous potential to expand within healthcare beyond just normal back office functions that we do," Hanna said. To him, one of the primary use cases of RPA in healthcare is revenue cycle management.
"As you know, there are code changes, ICD-9 code changes, code definitional changes, billing code changes and the like," he said. "It could be easier to train a fleet of robots that are doing repetitive activities and similar activities than it may be a large human staff."
Hanna said that the use of RPA technology in healthcare is a growing trend.
"[Healthcare organizations] are going to be looking at other classes of technology that are available as well to see how they can build in efficiency and gain better insight into the work that they're doing," Hanna said.
What a user says
Hanna explained that one area where Blue Prism has proved particularly helpful is with keeping up with the licensure and certification of Ascension's clinicians and making sure they're up to date.
"That's a process that involves our ERP stack, our processing team, our email system and our case management system," Hanna said. "The three particular systems in question are not connected in any way."
Hanna explained that without Blue Prism, the process looks something like this: Someone from Ascension's licensing and certification division would get a notification that a clinician at one of Ascension's locations will need to recertify or renew their license soon. Then letters would be sent notifying the clinician that they have a certain number of days until their license or certification expires.
"[In the] meantime, our associate is using the email system to send out follow-up messages to receive information back from the … customer and all the while is documenting that within the case management system," Hanna explained. "With Blue Prism, we've been able to automate a significant part of that back and forth, integrating those three systems in a way that allows our processing associate to not have to kick off certain processes or not have to follow all of the tracking of whether or not something has happened … the automation will do it for us."
The implementation of Blue Prism took Ascension about a year to complete.
"We basically started by identifying those swivel chair opportunities, those transactions where we're moving data from one system to another or a spreadsheet system," Hanna said. "We started with that to train our folks and to show the organization what the technology was capable of at even a base level."
Blue Prism provides secure and encrypted channels for transporting data and in-product controls for managing data, Bentley said. Blue Prism is not intended to be a data repository and therefore usually does not store sensitive personal information.
Blue Prism supports HIPAA and PCI compliance, Bentley added. And, when coupled with a customer's governance policies, helps ensure that the configuration of the product, the data center in which it is hosted and the operational and governance frameworks that surround its deployment, deliver a comprehensive technology.
Blue Prism declined to provide pricing information.
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