Health and care services

Innovation in the Irish health sector

Kevin Kelly, General Manager – eHealth (Digital Workflow and Automation) with the Health Service Executive (HSE), speaks to eolas Magazine about the attraction of talent being the greatest barrier to innovation in the health sector and how the Covid-19 pandemic enabled significant change.

Kelly has worked in a variety of technology roles within the HSE since 2004 and currently heads up the Digital Workflow and Automation team within eHealth.

“We have the weight of evidence, and we are now trying to bring it to bear in the areas that are causing the most pressure for the organisation.”

Talent attraction and retention

With many years of management experience, Kelly is in a prime position to identify the challenges facing the public sector today. “Attracting the right talent and then retaining it is a key challenge for the public sector,” he says. “For ourselves, we have a huge recruitment drive underway within eHealth. We are looking to fill 300 posts over the next 12 to 18 months across a range of disciplines such as robotic process automation (RPA), cyber, and data analytics.”

Cognisant of the difficulties that the public sector faces in competing with private sector salaries, Kelly says that public organisations have had to “think more creatively” in order to tackle the challenge. “We are using apprenticeship models and internships very successfully,” he says. “It is about developing that pipeline of talent, but also the HSE is a national organisation which means that we can base people relatively close to where they want to live.

“For example, in my own team we have developers based in Dublin, Donegal, Wexford, Limerick, and Westmeath. That is important for those people and hopefully it will help us to retain them.”


Having worked in the most critically affected sector during the Covid-19 pandemic, and now having the requisite distance to reflect on the lessons learned throughout, Kelly says that they were somewhat fortunate that they had “taken a punt” in the area of digital innovation. “As it transpired, we ended up having the right people in the right place at the right time; we did not know at the time how critical it would be, but that is how it panned out,” he says.

There was also a hint of good fortune about the timing of the demands placed on the HSE’s digital innovation team by the pandemic. “At the end of 2019, we had commenced two pilots in RPA with funding assistance from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform which were completed at the end of February 2020. Little did we know that one of those was to be instrumental in the pandemic response in the area of Garda vetting,” he explains.

“We automated a process that was being carried out by our HR department; our robots were able to carry out that process 52 times faster. The impact of that was that hiring managers across the HSE were able to put people into post within days of the vetting status coming through from An Garda Siochana, as opposed to the previous waiting time of up to a month, which was hugely important during the Covid-19 response in 2020.”

Following initial success, Kelly’s team turned their attention to further areas within the HSE. “We turned our attention then to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, who maintain the national register of infectious diseases,” he says. “Again, we were able to take 26 minutes of manual data entry effort for every single positive Covid-19 case away from surveillance scientists and public health staff to free them up to do far more meaningful work. The impact of that was absolutely massive. It was fortuitous given the timing since none of us could have anticipated the pandemic, but we instantly proved the worth of the technology. We did the same again in the aftermath of the cyberattack in 2021, where we were able to clear four-month backlogs of data entry work in just two weeks.

“Hopefully the dust has settled on both of these waves of pressure so we can turn our attention back out to the organisation to address particular problems. Earlier this year, we spent two days walking the corridors of University Hospital Galway, speaking to staff there to find opportunities for automation within referrals, labs, radiology, and so on. We have the weight of evidence, and we are now trying to bring it to bear in the areas that are causing the most pressure for the organisation.”

Kelly states that RPA is not the only area of innovation receiving attention from his teams, with forms digitisation, document understanding, and process mining also central to their work. “We are fortunate to be working in an area that allows us to take measured risks,” he says.

Looking to the future

Kelly states that the “last two or three years” have been “incredibly tough”, but that they have also served as a “reminder of the importance of the work” done in the public sector. “I will never forget walking into Dr Steevens’ Hospital in early March 2020 alongside army personnel being brought in to work in the area of contact tracing; you realised then that something very serious was going down,” he remembers. “Similarly, walking into the situation room in Citywest in the days after the cyberattack in 2021 and it being run militarily. It was all a reminder that we are ultimately working for the benefit of the public and the seriousness of what we do should not be lost on us.”

While the emergency nature may have subsided, the atmosphere is what has endured, Kelly concludes. “The way that we were forced to work, being allowed to take risks, red tape removed and just going for it; some of that has remained while elements of it has slipped back but people are generally keen to retain that working environment. But looking back, there is a different vibe to the way we are working in general, and I see that as a real positive.”

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