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October 22, 2019

My first encounter with robotic process automation (RPA) dates to 2017. At the time, just like several others, I was skeptical of the technology, and everything it had to offer. Over the past two years, that notion has been turned on its head.

These days, every time I am presented with a business process driven primarily by humans, I tend to question whether we need to execute it.

How is RPA disruptive?

When we think of robots, we typically think of mechanical ‘beings’ that can be created to perform repetitive, laborious tasks instead of humans. RPA offers a similar capability at a software level, allowing us to create bots that can mimic human activity on computer applications.

To me, one of the biggest advantages of RPA is, it is completely non-invasive to the underlying system landscape. Each robot within the RPA framework is designed to require the same access and controls as a normal human user and performs a set of predefined tasks via the same user interface. This means that many RPA solutions can be implemented on a plug-and-play basis, helping you disrupt your market without disrupting operations.

Another benefit of using RPA is that the components are very easy to re-design, develop, and scale as the underlying processes change. In fact, it is faster and more cost-effective than retraining human users.

Examples of how RPA can be effectively used in life sciences include faster data processing during clinical trials, improved pharmacovigilance by accurately capturing data, improved compliance through automated and standardized regulatory processes.

Within the life sciences domain, RPA has several potential use cases, including:

 ●      Lifting several thousand documents each month from various sources (such as mailboxes, file shares, and other business applications) and loading them onto a web-based portal for reporting and archival purposes, while performing quality checks on the artefacts as they are being processed.

●      Supplementing manual users with automated outputs generated by bots for processing case data within an application that maintains safety information for the sponsor’s products (pharmaceuticals, vaccines, devices, etc.).

Each of the above examples led to significant cost savings, increased efficiencies and improved quality in the process resulting in savings of hundreds of thousands of pounds per year for the sponsor.

While these benefits may seem extraordinary, I have learned the hard way that it is crucial to spend enough time analyzing the nitty-gritty of the processes being automated. In my experience, you can gain maximum efficiency with RPA if you start small and build your capabilities as your needs grow. The key is to not try and overachieve.

The evolving role of the human employee

Many tech pundits have pegged RPA as doomsday technology from an economic perspective, citing mass job losses and subsequently loss of relevance for skilled human workers. Today, we know these claims are far from the truth. Several new opportunities are arising from RPA as well, and just like any other industry disruptor, it simply forces humans to re-invent themselves in ways they have not foreseen.

Now, naturally RPA in its direct application is replacing humans in the literal sense, but over the long term, I see it more as an enabler that can relieve individuals from performing tedious, repetitive tasks that require very little thinking. This freedom from busywork allows life sciences organizations to devote more human resources to high-level tasks which require creativity and critical thinking. In short, RPA gives us all the bandwidth to effect more valuable changes throughout the enterprise.

The biggest threat to RPA

Armed with RPA, I started to realign resource-intensive processes to minimize the human capital involved. The journey was not without challenges, one of the most prominent being a stubborn resistance to change and technology adoption. This is especially true when automating tasks that have regulatory agencies as key stakeholders.

When I initially began implementing RPA, several stakeholder groups required convincing that the technology could streamline processes, ranging from capabilities to compliance. The business community was often the first to get on board as they are the direct beneficiaries of business process automation, but the technical community always had several other ideas. These ranged from process improvements to enhancing data quality to more intuitive integrations between systems.

The way forward

To conclude, though I have barely scratched the surface here, RPA technology has a lot to offer and can expand the potential of automation. We are no longer limited to devising smarter excel macros and VBA scripts but can automate huge swathes of resource-intensive administrative and data processing work.

Regardless of RPA’s future in the life sciences industry, it is undoubtedly one of the more valuable dimensions of digital transformation. Implementing RPA should be the goal of the life sciences industry, and not merely left to individual enterprises.

A postgraduate (M.Sc. in Biophysics) from the University of Mumbai, with an overall experience of more than 12 years working across several projects in the area of Drug Development Process, related to Discovery, Clinical, Regulatory & Safety divisions.


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