Chatbots have come of age. And they’ve come a long way from the clumsy pop-ups once deployed on websites to generate leads. Thanks to Artificial Intelligence, the latest generation of chatbots are more clever than ever and are increasingly playing a role in the global fight against COVID-19.
Chatbots on the Front Lines
You might not expect to find chatbots on the front lines of a public-health crisis, but multiple hospitals and health organizations have recognized their value at a time when all human hands are on deck. Take Hyro’s COVID-19 Virtual Assistant, for example, this free AI-powered, corona-focused chatbot answers questions, parses responses, poses follow-up queries of its own, triages symptoms and addresses patients’ concerns while sharing important information from the CDC and WHO.
The Hyro COVID-19 Virtual Assistant can be embedded on websites, call centers, and apps, allowing patients to freely interact with it via voice and text using their own natural language. In essence, this data-driven virtual assistant assumes the role of a human point of contact, relieving strain at a time when health organizations are increasingly overloaded. Hyro, a member of Microsoft’s Partner Network, has been entrusted by a number of healthcare facilities including New York’s Montefiore Hospital, the Austin Regional Clinic, and Ohio’s Fisher-Titus Medical Center. The tech startup has made the plug-and-play chatbot completely free for the purposes of combatting the outbreak.
How Chatbots Are Sparking Conversation
This isn’t the only example of a chatbot being integrated into the typical patient journey: developers such as Txtonomy and Orbita and have created similar conversational AI tools to help combat the rampant spread of misinformation related to Covid-19 and support medical professionals in screening patients and educating worried citizens. The UK government introduced a special WhatsApp chatbot for the same reasons. Could this be an insight into the future of healthcare: clinical smart-bots handling preliminary inquiries, screening and funnelling patients accordingly, introducing efficiencies in testing and treatment?
Response by Kristin Simonini, vice president of product, Applause.
Healthcare has long been looked at as a laggard when it comes to adopting digital services. Part of that is due to the stringent regulations of the industry and the sensitivity surrounding personally identifiable information. Part of the blame, however, falls on healthcare providers themselves. As more and more providers in the industry start to embrace digital innovation, a number of key trends emerged over the past decade including:
The embrace of mobile technology for scheduling appointments and other routine tasks
Telehealth patients accessing doctors for consults, education, and certain outpatient treatments across a variety of fields
The IoT explosion (Fitbits and other wearables) providing customers health information to drive the healthcare they receive
Healthcare’s focus on patient experience means bringing a critical eye to current digital experiences. Ease-of-use and inclusivity must be considered to ensure high-quality digital experiences across all touchpoints, particularly on smartwatches, tablets, and smart speakers
In terms of predictions for 2020, we expect use of voice technology will continue to grow and empower the healthcare industry in new ways, including supporting patients. The benefits that voice brings to healthcare can be seen in medical record transcriptions, chatbots sharing the work, sharing knowledge, voice-user interface, and connecting clinics to customers.
In addition, AI will continue to impact the healthcare industry in numerous ways. As healthcare embraces AI, it will also need to address issues of bias. All types of AI – from virtual assistants learning how different users ask for the same thing, to healthcare apps identifying potential health issues from uploaded photos – have been hampered by the same challenge: sourcing enough data to teach the machine how to interpret and respond, and then testing the output at scale to ensure the results are accurate and human-like when necessary. To mitigate bias concerns, healthcare will need to make AI more representative of patients.
Sherlock Holmes famously captured the popular imagination with his uncanny ability to make wild, but accurate, leaps of logic to solve mysteries. By observing Dr. Watson’s suit jacket sleeve, upon their first encounter, he was able to deduce that Watson was in fact a surgeon, in the British Army, and had recently returned from Afghanistan, where he had sustained an injury.
When he slowed down to explain his reasoning, it was easy to follow; what made his deductions impressive was how quickly he would skip from observation to conclusion. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but it seems to me that chatbots are poised to take over much of modern healthcare.
As more data is moved to portals through EHRs and digital documentation, there is increased patient interest in and demand for other digital and remote encounters and health resources. This, along with improving technology and competitive solutions, is helping increase adoption of telehealth. So, patient portals lead to increased telehealth adoption.
Finally, although part of the premise and value of telehealth is enabling face-to-face encounters between caregivers and patients without respect to geography, hospital waiting rooms, or other physical barriers, it changes certain expectations. Like all mobile and web-based services, telehealth feeds a consumer mindset that expects everything on-demand, all but instantaneously, and highly customized at that.
While portable patient records facilitated by EHRs and interoperability can help this, customization and on-demand healthcare doesn’t just put pressure on records and data. Patients want fast and personalized answers. As customer service centers, tech support, banks and virtually every other consumer-facing industry has learned, a lot of the on-demand load can be pushed onto increasingly sophisticated chatbots.
So, telehealth leads to growing expectations for on-demand clinical encounters and chat, which is provided by chatbots.
The Case for Chatbots
Retail has previewed much for healthcare: See how customer service upgrades have turned everyone into “The Most Important Person Here” wherever they go, in person or online. Consumers demand personalization, expedition, authenticity and they want it all exactly when and where they want it. And now, see how AI is not yet taking over the world, but is making FAQs and other routine customer service interactions painless for those answering, and interactive enough for those asking.
Retail is even making inroads to healthcare, as consumer-facing devices promise to measure and track all manner of health metrics. Statistics-loving sports fans witness the increasing digitization and quantification of athletes, games, injuries and training, and they want a similar level of insight and precision for their own care. Mobile technology is redefining and disrupting even the oldest and most stable of markets and industries, bit by literal bit.
So how long until the dry, repetitive questions doctors routinely must answer in check-ups and physicals are ethically and effectively offloaded onto chatbots programmed to triage and educate patients without wasting valuable human resources? How long until using telehealth to keep nonemergency patients out of the emergency room merges with using chat and AI — the basic recipe for chatbots — to keep healthy but curious or concerned patients from wasting time and money going through full encounters simply to get their general questions answered?
It doesn’t take a lot of sophistication to realize the benefits of AI at scale. Google has all but taken over the modern world by connecting searchers with answers to their questions; Wikipedia has all but bankrupted the encyclopedia industry with free, accessible, general knowledge. In a world where health literacy is so lacking in the majority of the population, some interactive resources could go a long way to chipping away at ER overuse and healthcare overconsumption, just by giving people an alternative to seeing the doctor.
Automation of Care, Automation of Crime
As quickly as potential benefits can scale, very real risks and both moral and financial hazards scale even quicker.
The growing popularity and implementation of chatbots has given hackers and cybercriminals a new way to scam, defraud, and generally abuse unwitting consumers. Sometimes that means hackers take over a company’s chat system with their own bot and solicit data. Sometimes fraudsters attract visitors with a spoof website, then use a bot to similarly extract volunteered data at scale from misled visitors. However it is done, it scales almost as well as a more conventional data breach, and can be harder to detect or track.