Client:University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust

University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust automates for excellent care

University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust






potential savings in 5 years


hours given back to employees

University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust’s vision starts with four simple words: “To provide excellent care.” Everything it does is towards this goal. Which includes using automation. As Chris Butson, lead automation developer and business analyst, explains, “All we do is about patient satisfaction.”

He founded the digital automation team in 2021 with these words in mind, and quickly went about creating a plan that would have an impact on health service users. “We started by exploring the software, creating automations for the performance information department,” he recalls. “It collects and analyses data to help the Trust make decisions.”

As such, it’s full of manual tasks, serving as the perfect testbed for Butson as he started his automation journey. “We asked team members about their pain points. Soon we’d built experimental solutions to help them.” This was an important early step, offering a safe space to grow and innovate.

Spreading automation’s wings

“The initial robots were small but created the proof of concept we needed to convince decisionmakers,” Butson says. “Soon we were able to approach other departments, such as the outpatient appointment centre and procurement. We asked them where we could help and developed automations for them too.”

It was a huge confidence boost for the team, which embarked on a communications plan to reach further across the Trust. “We put a success story in the daily staff email, which drew attention from many more colleagues.”

The next automation was for the ambulance handover report. “Every day, the South Western Ambulance Service sends us an email detailing all the patients they’ve delivered. Someone had to find that email, extract the data and add it to our systems, without fail—even over weekends.”

A robot took on the task, saving 30 hours a year and establishing our first example of an end-to-end automated process. It also created other benefits because people use the data so widely. Automating the process created reliability and stability, putting information at the fingertips of people across the Trust.

Chris Butson • lead automation developer and business analyst at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust

The floodgates opened after that. “People began coming to us asking for help via our intranet page. I created a form for them to fill in based on the UiPath Automation Hub.”

Within a week, colleagues had sent in about 15 ideas. Thanks to the hard work Butson’s team put in at the start of their journey, there was already a prioritization plan in place. “We had a dashboard showing the benefits of each process, which helped us create a pipeline.”

A turning point

One automation sent texts to patients after treatment. It not only digitized a manual, analog process, but had a significant impact on patient experience. “In the past, every patient received a letter after their visit asking about their experience. They had to fill it out by hand, put in in an envelope and send it to the Trust.”

“The response rate was low—about 4%. We turned the questionnaire into an online form, sent via text. The response rate tripled, beating the national average. Now other departments send texts to patients too.”

Butson is keen to point out that the robot in this instance does something many others across the NHS don’t. It ensures the patient voice is heard,” he says with passion. “We’re not just focussing on the number of hours saved or costs avoided, we’re making a difference to patients.”

Another fantastic example of putting patients first is an automation showing waiting times across the Trust. It’s often the case that A&E departments are very busy, but minor injury units less so.

The automation downloads a report every 10 minutes showing how many people are in line at each location. It calculates the wait time at each, making it available via an app as well as the Trust’s website.

Chris Butson • lead automation developer and business analyst at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust

Patients can then make an informed decision about where to go based on how quickly practitioners will see them. “A human couldn’t create this type of data,” Butson enthuses. “We’re not saving employee time. But we’re improving patient experience.”

However, there are clear operational and financial benefits of the 16 automations now at work. They’ve saved the Trust £81,500 and handed 4,368 hours to staff to focus on more valuable work. Even without further automations, the Trust would avoid costs of £653,500 within five years. With the plan the team has in place, that could be £3,157,000.

This will come from automations such as one that uploads cardiac echo images from two different scanners to a database. Here, clinicians can view images and add them to patient records. This not only saves time and boosts patient care, but reduces the volume of printed scans, increasing sustainability too. It’s drawn lots of attention from clinicians across the organization.

Employee engagement

While some NHS Trusts have encountered understandable automation worries from employees, it’s not a problem in Plymouth. “We approach each robot with care. We speak to managers, asking them to find process bottlenecks and then sell the idea of automation to their teams. Leaders explain how the software will help. Fewer emails to deal with, fewer meetings to attend.”

Butson also believes language is important.

Internally, we don’t refer to RPA, robots or automation. We talk about digital assistants. An assistant helps someone in their job, rather than threatening it.

Chris Butson • lead automation developer and business analyst at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust

A beacon of innovation

Thanks to the Trust’s achievements, others in the region are looking to it for inspiration. Rather than starting from scratch, they’re going to build on the expertise within Butson’s team so they can deploy digital assistants at speed.

“When we started our journey, we formed a collaboration with NHS England, which helped us with governance and project structure from the outset. Now that same partnership has allowed us to build up a contact network with other organizations on a similar path.” The Trust plans to take on 14 people to support other parts of the NHS in the South West. A business case for doing so is nearly complete.

As this takes place, Butson and his team will explore Document Understanding, which will allow automations to find, extract, and process information from paperwork.

We’re also considering the new UiPath Autopilot solution, which blends Generative and Specialized AI to help employees with daily tasks.

Chris Butson • lead automation developer and business analyst at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust

Tips for success

While putting patients at the heart of any NHS automation implementation is vital, there are other tips that Butson has for colleagues across the UK. “If I had one piece of advice, it would be getting IT on board early. IT departments can be blockers if they’re not brought into the program, and you don’t give good reasons for supplying access to systems.”

“Also, you need the communications team involved. They’ll spread the word about digital assistants. Meanwhile, build a strong structure and plan before you try any automation. That will ensure it’s successful. If possible, follow the lead of other Trusts and understand what’s needed.”

Doing so will ensure the NHS continues to adopt automation for the benefit of patients, not just the back office. While both are important, people must always come first. Because as Butson reminds his team daily, “What we do could affect our relatives.” It’s a thought that sharpens the mind and keeps automation laser focused on delivering excellent care.

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