Healthcare Chatbots Can Transform Your Practice
For physicians and practice managers who want to create a top-quality patient experience, technology can be a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, automation can save a lot of time and money. But you’re often dealing with very vulnerable people who need a caring, human touch.
Coronavirus made us think even more about our relationship with technology. Most clinicians had to adopt telemedicine in something of a hurry, with usage rates leaping from 11 percent in 2019 to 46 percent in 2020. But the result is that patients are now more comfortable with a digital layer between them and their doctor.
Chatbots are the perfect compromise. A chatbot allows your patients to have a warm, responsive interaction that enhances their experience. But it’s also an automated process that will reduce workload and enable you to focus resources where they’re needed.
Let’s see how these digital assistants can deliver value for healthcare providers.
What is a chatbot?
You’ve probably already seen chatbots around the internet. Many websites have a little chat window that appears while you’re browsing. This window presents in the same format as the messaging function on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, and gives the impression that you’re chatting with a representative.
But you’re not. You’re speaking to a machine.
More specifically, you’re speaking to a form of AI (Artificial Intelligence). This AI uses NLP (Natural Language Processing), which is a branch of machine learning, to turn your messages into something that a computer understands. The AI then identifies the appropriate response and replies back to you, either with a pre-written message or with text generated by NLP.
This is the same technology that powers digital assistants like Alexa and Siri, which are essentially chatbots. You may also have connected with chatbots on messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, and these bots might initiate conversations with you about news or special offers.
While there’s no danger of these bots being confused with a real person, they do offer some advantages. Some people struggle with text and menus, which excludes them from digital services. Chatbots allow people to communicate in natural language, which is much more accessible.
How do chatbots work in a healthcare context?
Healthcare providers can use customer service chatbots to manage admin work, such as booking appointments or paying bills. But physicians also have access to a specific AI tool: the healthcare chatbot.
There is a range of such tools on the market, each with its own features. Generally, healthcare chatbots work by asking patients a series of questions. At the end of the questionnaire, the chatbot either offers immediate advice or sends the details to a physician.
This approach has several useful applications, such as:
Triage and diagnostics
Many patients will already use websites like WebMD to diagnose themselves before they consult a doctor. Most physicians hate co-consulting with Dr. Google because patients don’t have the diagnostic skills to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.
Healthcare chatbots can help patients diagnose themselves in a safe, controlled way. The chatbot follows a pre-approved diagnostic path, asking the patient a series of questions, with each answer leading to a relevant next question.
In the end, the patient gets a probable diagnosis with a list of next steps. If it’s something that requires a consultation, the chatbot can help arrange an appointment. If anything requires immediate attention – such as chest pains or loss of consciousness – then the chatbot can route the conversation to a doctor or tell the user to dial 911.
A study of healthcare chatbots shows that many physicians are worried about reliance on such bots. Some 74 percent believe that there’s a risk of patients diagnosing themselves too often. The same number worry that patients may not understand the diagnosis.
That is why chatbots work best in tandem with good clinical practice. You can store all chatbot interactions on a patient’s file, follow this up at the next consultation, or reach out to them by phone.
Chatbots can’t deal with complex emergencies, and healthcare chatbots will direct such emergencies directly to 911.
However, there are plenty of first aid emergencies that don’t require urgent attention. Instead, the user just needs a little guidance on what to do. This can include minor cuts and sprains, or just dealing with common ailments like cold and flu.
A chatbot can use the same diagnostic process as above to deliver this information. The chatbot can even deliver multimedia information, such as audio and video, making it easier for users to follow the process.
First aid chatbots can also educate people proactively. ZobiBot is a Facebook chatbot that delivers first aid education via Messenger. It’s a fun and straightforward way to interact with people and increase their medical knowledge.
Long-term treatment is a two-way conversation. The healthcare team needs to constantly talk to the patient, get measurements and readings, and remind them to follow their treatment plan. Patients, meanwhile, need to ask questions, clarify details, and occasionally seek reassurance.
It’s hard to give every patient the attention they need each day, which is where chatbots come in. A chatbot can act as a friendly interface between the person and their treatment team. The chatbot can do things like:
- Send reminders about medication and measure medication adherence levels
- Clarify any questions about dosages or other elements of the treatment plan
- Collect daily readings, such as temperature, blood pressure or blood sugar
- Schedule appointments and send reminders
- Answer basic queries about the current plan
The chatbot can do all of this in warm, human language that the patient will find comforting. Of course, an AI will never replace the treatment team, and that’s not the goal here. Instead, the chatbot provides a 24/7 communication bridge between the patient and the team.
Self-care and wellness
Technology is allowing people to take healthcare into their own hands – literally. A study by Pricewaterhouse Cooper found that 44 percent of people would perform an electrocardiogram at home if they had the right equipment, and a third of people would be prepared to have an MRI at a retail location.
Technology has empowered people to take control of their own healthcare. Combined with a growing interest in wellness, this means a landscape where patients don’t just want you to fix them when something’s wrong. They want you to help them stay healthy.
Chatbots are an excellent tool for dispensing practical wellness advice. You can easily set up a chatbot to deal with wellness queries, such as diet advice, exercise tips, and how to interpret data from wearable tech. If your chatbot runs on a messaging platform like WhatsApp, you can use this channel to push out regular tips on self-care and staying healthy.
How to implement a healthcare chatbot
There are several healthcare chatbots on the market, such as Florence, Babylon and Infermedica. All of these offer different features, from extensive medical databases to virtual avatars that can participate in a video chat.
For healthcare providers, implementing any chatbot involves a few key steps:
1) Decide what kind of service your chatbot will offer.
How will it integrate with your analog services? For example, will the chatbot be able to pass the conversation to someone in your office if needs be, or will the patient need to phone in?
2) Create a conversation flowchart.
Chatbot conversations follow a defined flowchart. As AI develops, these flowcharts will become increasingly complex, especially in general-purpose settings. However, healthcare chatbots will always need to stay within rigid parameters, just to make sure patients are getting the right advice.
3) Build a library.
Healthcare chatbots don’t actually have any medical knowledge, or indeed, any kind of knowledge at all. It’s up to you to provide them with the required information. Many off-the-shelf solutions will include a medical knowledge base, but you can expand this to include your own content.
4) Make it easy for people to connect.
Bots deploy in a number of ways. You can embed them on your website, build an app around them, or connect over an existing platform like WhatsApp. Voice-activated bots can deal with phone calls. Rather than choosing a bot and then guiding patients towards it, try to understand your patient’s preferences. Then, choose a chatbot that suits their needs.
5) Listen to user feedback.
The real conversation is always between the patient and the physician. Chatbots only act as a communication bridge between the two. For that reason, it’s essential to listen to patients and gauge their experience with chatbots. Ultimately, technology should make life easier for them.
AI will never replace doctors. Patients will always require a human, hands-on approach, especially when they’re at their most vulnerable.
But AI can deal with a lot of the work that takes up a doctor’s day. Healthcare chatbots can free up clinic resources, and they can empower patients to take control of their own wellbeing.
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