The Computer Says Yes

By Thornton, John | Public Finance, January 2012 | Go to article overview

The Computer Says Yes


Thornton, John, Public Finance


POLICY AUTOMATION IS becoming widely used in the public and private sectors - so what exactly is it?

All organisations rely on 'policies' to make things happen, to ensure consistency and to prevent undesirable outcomes. While these are relatively easy to write, they are usually much harder to implement - as this depends on developing 'rules' and ensuring 'compliance'. However, technology is really good at using rules to make decisions and guide people quickly through complex decision-making processes.

Policy automation therefore provides a powerful means of improving decision making, speeding up processes and dramatically reducing costs, especially as more functions are accessed and managed online.

It uses what are called 'rules engines' to generate actions and follow-ups based on the information received. Rules can usually be entered in everyday business language, enabling them to be defined and maintained without recourse to IT specialists. These potentially enable large numbers of routine enquiries and decisions to be handled automatically, creating more time for the enquiries and decisions that are less routine. The technology is currently mainly used for things such as the automatic calculation of benefit entitlements, scheduling appointments and signposting to relevant information.

It can also be used for more complex decision-making such as responding to health risk assessments completed by patients online. A family history of heart disease could trigger an appointment for blood and blood pressure tests, as well as a link to further relevant information about diet and exercise.

Policy automation allows health professionals to construct and deploy auditable rules and 'decision trees' to ensure that patients are accurately and consistently treated at every stage in the patient journey. This means that information such as eligibility for a form of treatment or the rationale for an individual decision can be quickly determined and incorporated into the patient's record.

In a paper submitted to the public inquiry into the failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust showed how better information management, analytics and rules engines can be combined to improve patient care. …

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