How Chatbots are Changing the Healthcare Industry
2020 was the ultimate stress test for the healthcare industry. Every aspect of the system came under unprecedented pressure, and healthcare providers discovered the value of their tech investments – or they discovered the cost of underinvestment.
One of the most important new technologies is the healthcare chatbot. These smart interfaces book appointments, triage patients, and offer ongoing care. But what exactly are they?
What are chatbots
Chatbots, also known as Conversational AIs, are systems that allow people to have natural conversations with a digital system. T
Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms can make decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so. We see applications of AI everywhere today. For example, Netflix and Amazon have data-crunching algorithms that study behavioral information to build a profile of your preferences. As a result, the AI can recommend movies or products you might like, often with spooky accuracy.
Conversation is a function of Natural Language Processing (NLP). Humans and computers speak fundamentally different languages, which is a barrier to communication. Traditionally, we’ve forced human users to speak the computer’s language, using menus, graphical interfaces, and limited syntax commands. NLP inverts that relationship, allowing computers to understand our language.
Conversational AI uses NLP to work with audio or text, both as inputs and outputs. A familiar example is Alexa or Siri – you speak to them in conversational English, and they reply with something that sounds more or less human.
How can chatbots help in healthcare?
Chatbots only possess rudimentary intelligence. They work best when they’re following a defined process or working within limited parameters.
How many healthcare activities fit this definition? If you think about the recurring jobs that happen in any healthcare setting, you’ll make a list like this:
- Answering basic queries, such as opening hours and contact details
- Booking and rescheduling appointments
- Arranging payment or handling insurance details
- Performing diagnostic Q&As
- Giving self-care advice on minor ailments
- Offering basic first aid advice
- Clarifying drug and treatment regimens
- Checking on patient adherence
Chatbots can easily step in and take over some of these processes. This takes immediate pressure off staff, and allows them to focus on more urgent care needs.
Healthcare providers have, of course, already digitized many of their processes. Sometimes, patients push back against these changes. The problem is often that they find the new systems confusing or they’re not comfortable with computers. But healthcare chatbots are a more patient-focused approach than online tools or apps. While a chatbot can’t perfectly mimic human interaction, it’s much closer to a face-to-face experience than using an app.
Five types of healthcare chatbot that will improve care delivery
Healthcare AI is a booming sector. Over the next five years, it will become a $2 billion industry, reshaping every aspect of care.
But what does it mean to patients right now? Here are five types of healthcare chatbot that are already in common usage by clinics, hospitals, insurance companies, and patients themselves.
Admin and patient interactions
Chatbots can handle many of the routine queries that clinics and hospitals deal with every day. The Medical Chatbot by NCRTS is one such patient-facing solution. It can process a voice call with a patient, offer relevant information, and trigger certain admin processes.
A patient can phone directly to the chatbot and ask questions like:
- Confirm opening hours
- Book an appointment
- Reschedule an appointment
- Ask for information about diagnostic packages
- Check doctor availability
- Get directions to the clinic
Each of these functions can link to a specific back-office function. For instance, if the caller calls to make an appointment, the chatbot can connect directly to the booking system and schedule a time and date.
The chatbot can also provide can Frequently Asked Questions service that works much like an online FAQ. When a caller asks a question, the chatbot will use NLP techniques to match to the closest entry in the FAQ. It then finds the matching answer and reads this information to the patient.
Triage and first aid
When a patient contacts a healthcare service, the first step is to assess their current symptoms. Based on this information, the call handler can decide the appropriate course of action. This process usually involves a series of diagnostic questions, which will give a rough idea of what needs to happen next. This might be urgent care, a consultation with a doctor, or self-care advice.
It’s a process you can automate with a chatbot such as Sensely. With this tool, users interact with a virtual video assistant named Molly. Molly checks their symptoms, asks questions, and gathers health data.
The Sensely platform then uses a massive database of medical information to assess the patient’s needs. Depending on the results, Molly will direct the user to dial 911, make an appointment, or continue monitoring their symptoms at home.
Chatbots can also deliver vital first aid information. Zobi is a first-aid chatbot that works on the popular Facebook Messenger platform. Users chat with Zobi as they would with a Facebook friend, and Zobi teaches them about basic first aid.
Doctors also need AI assistance when treating patients. There’s a diverse market for clinical assistant chatbots, but they mainly focus on three key areas:
Doctors need to search through records and find information fast. Tools like Dragon Medical One from Nuancecan perform voice-activated queries and return results in various formats.
Many doctors rely on transcription services to help capture patient data. A much quicker approach is a voice-to-text system, powered by AI for accuracy. Amazon, creators of consumer chatbot Alexa, are moving into this space with Amazon Transcribe Medical.
Medical professionals need professional-grade symptom checkers that produce reliable results. Tools like MedWhatcan help to provide a second opinion by searching through a vast library of publications.
There’s no immediate danger of chatbots replacing doctors any time soon. But AI-powered voice assistants can take a lot of the stress and paperwork away from doctors, leaving them to focus on what’s important: the patient.
Care and support
Patients often struggle to find assistance when they need it. This is especially true with mental health, where it might take months to get an appointment with someone who can help.
In the meantime, there are chatbot solutions that can offer meaningful help whenever they need it. Woebot is a chatbot that users communicate in text form, using an app that looks like a standard messaging app. Users can tell the chatbot about their day, describe their mood, and Woebot will offer natural-sounding advice.
Behind the scenes, Woebot is analyzing sentiments in the text. The Woebot engine uses the principles of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) to make relevant suggestions, and the NLP turns those suggestions into meaningful text.
Another entrant into this space is YouPer, which takes a slightly more proactive approach. Users set goals and track their mood in the app. A built-in virtual therapist offers advice on reaching goals. Again, this advice is based on CBT principles.
Treatment plan assistants
Doctors rely on patients to follow their treatment plan, which may include exercise, diet, and following a medication schedule. Unfortunately, adherence has been a long-term problem for patients who are not resident in a hospital. Basically, people forget to take their pills every day.
Chatbots can offer gentle nudges, which may help improve adherence rates. Florence is a digital nurse that can connect with patients over Facebook Messenger, Skype, or Kik. Give Florence a list of patient medications, and she will send timely reminders. Patients can confirm that they’ve taken their medication, which helps monitor adherence rates.
This is extremely useful when dealing with older and vulnerable patients who may struggle to stick to a schedule. Healthcare chatbots like Florence can also help gather data by asking patients to submit weight, temperature, blood sugar or blood pressure readings. The system can then forward this information directly to the relevant healthcare provider.
Concerns and issues with healthcare chatbots
AI can solve a lot of problems in healthcare, but chatbots are not a panacea. If you’re considering installing a conversational AI solution, there are a few things to consider.
- Privacy: Patient data is governed by HIPAAand other local data laws. While most of the solutions listed above are HIPAA-compliant, it’s your responsibility to make sure that you’re following the law.
- Security: Any new system is a potential cybersecurity risk. You’ll need an independent audit of your entire IT setup, including the new chatbot. If there are any vulnerabilities, you could expose sensitive patient data to hackers.
- Patient experience: Chatbots should provide an improved experience for all service users. However, it’s important to listen to patient feedback and establish whether your chatbot solution is really making life easier for people.
- Integration:Many chatbots work with other systems, such as a receptionist bot that connects to the appointment booking database. You’ll need to make sure that these integrations are reliable, secure, and don’t impact any other part of your IT infrastructure.
If you get past these concerns, you’ll find that your chatbot is cutting down everyone’s workload. More importantly, it will provide a better experience for patients.