Automating data capture and interfaces
Digital Pioneer Fellow, Ben Bawden, shares his experience of developing a rapid solution for automating data capture from PCR tests for staff and local care homes.
I am the Senior Systems Architect for Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust. My role involves developing data systems and applications to support the Trust’s work.
In May 2020 near the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we had an urgent requirement to conduct PCR tests for the staff and residents of our local care homes. This would run to several hundred people.
Our Pathology system could already accept electronic requests for tests via the DART system, which is an electronic pathology request system, however there was no interface for DART that care homes could use, as they were generally not on the Health and Social Care Network.
The first idea was to register all of the people on the Trust’s Patient Administration System and raise a request for the PCR test via Clinical Manager. This was dismissed due to the excessive administrative burden it would generate, and the fact that there would be a risk of transcription errors when the request was copied into the PAS system.
Developing the solution
We had already used Microsoft Forms for a previous project just for collecting information from users. We found that developing a form for data collection was quick and easy, depending on the complexity of the requirements. However, we were not sure whether it was possible to pass the collected data to the Pathology system.
After some research and testing, we used Power Automate to populate a SQL database table on our data warehouse with the data collected by the form. This ran almost real-time: a trigger fired when the form was submitted which initiated the automate task to copy the data. A SQL job then examined and cleaned the data, interfaced with the Pathology system to create the PCR test request directly on the Pathology system, and emailed a PDF with their unique test barcode back to the person who requested it.
This worked really well, with the caveat that MS Forms has very little validation available when the user completes it. Most of the validation and error checking had to be done on the database, with a process that emailed the user back if they had made a data entry error.
The solution was well received, with particular acclaim given for how quickly we were able to deliver a working solution – from initial discussions to a working system was under three weeks.
We did have to give a lot of thought to Information Governance (IG), as we knew in some cases staff at the care homes would be required to complete the form on behalf of the residents. We took advice from our IG lead and Caldicott Guardian and issued careful guidance on how the data would be used.
Impact and future expansion
Through the project, I thought that this would be useful for other processes, and so it proved. We implemented a similar solution when we came to vaccinate the workforce, with a form collecting consent and required data, and populating a list of staff requiring the vaccine that the Occupational Health vaccination team could work from.
We have also recently developed an application using Power Apps for staff to record their twice-weekly Lateral Flow Test results. Power Apps is an excellent platform for developing and deploying low-code applications. And as it ties in to the nhs.net email for authentication, securing the application is easy.
There is already a list of other processes that colleagues are asking us to develop a similar data collection solution for; everything from IT system access forms, HR new starters, and recording post-Covid patient assessments.
By using this approach of combining different collection and automation technologies, we have been able to quickly deliver low-code, efficient and scalable solutions that drastically reduce administrative load and eliminate as far as possible transcription errors. It has been transformational in modernising the Trust’s data collection processes and will continue to deliver improvements as other processes are included in the platform.
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