A COMPUTER programme will be used to cut administrative time and costs at Colchester General Hospital.

In a first for the NHS, East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Trust has brought in three so-called “virtual workers” at Ipswich Hospital.

The computer programme is designed to free staff up from “mundane and repetitive” tasks so they can spend more time on patient care.

Virtual workers are set to be installed at the trust’s hospital in Colchester from next year after a new IT system is installed.

The software monitors referrals from GPs.

It extracts the reason for referral and supporting clinical information from sources such as blood test results and scans, then puts these all in a single document which is flagged to the lead consultant for review and grading.

Previously medical secretaries were responsible for processing referrals manually, downloading and printing documents, which they then scanned into a new document.

Other possibilities being explored for the virtual workers include for clinical coding, human resources processes, help desks, audits and patient engagement.

The trust deals with around 2,000 referrals per week.

The system has been running at Ipswich since July.

Darren Atkins, deputy director of ICT, said the robots have already cut the time taken to process the first stage of each GP referral from 15 to 20 minutes, down to five minutes.

He said that within the first three months it has released more than 500 hours of medical secretaries’ time.

The trust estimates it will save £220,000 in associated direct costs by July.

Mr Atkins added: “We’re delighted with the results we’ve realised so far and are hugely excited about the potential benefits of automating more processes across our trust.

“When you look at the time and cost savings we’ve already banked within just one specific area of our operations, you start to get an idea of how intelligent automation can drive transformation on a huge scale within the NHS.”

He said the technology mimics the way humans would work on a computer so human staff are freed up from “mundane and repetitive” tasks.

“What’s more, we now have our medical secretaries fully focused on the things that make a real difference to our staff and patients.”