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?
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Amazon announced that a version of their virtual assistant technology, Alexa, is now HIPAA-eligible. This means it’s available for applications that are subject to the data privacy and security requirements of HIPAA. The new HIPAA-eligible version of Alexa, specifically the Alexa Skills Kit, is now available to a limited number of developers by invitation only.
Amazon has seen increasing interest in Alexa’s potential to serve as a virtual healthcare assistant. While devices like PCs, tablets, and smartphones have contributed to advances in healthcare, they’ve been problematic for some aspects of patient engagement – particularly among the elderly and others who physically cannot – or will not – use them.
The idea of a smart, always-available, hands-free, voice-powered virtual assistant that can answer questions, deliver medication reminders, facilitate communication with one’s doctor, provide health coaching, and more, has piqued the interest of the healthcare community. Amazon has responded.
Until now, Alexa’s use in healthcare has been mostly limited to question answering services – voice apps, or “skills” in Alexa parlance, that answer general questions about health conditions, treatments, symptoms, etc. Amazon Echo users, for example, can access health benefit information from a skill like Answers by Cigna, or tap into one of many symptom checkers in the Alexa marketplace. The big change is that Alexa can now be used in certain applications that collect and transmit protected health information (PHI).
This opens a whole new world of voice applications beyond basic Q&A, such as remote patient monitoring population health, medication adherence and clinical trial optimization. It seemed inevitable that voice assistants like Alexa and smart speaker-equipped devices like the Amazon Echo would find their way into clinical applications. Amazon’s announcement confirms this.
Organizations must understand the full range of issues surrounding the “what, why and how” of securing, voice-first healthcare applications. HIPAA is just the start. There is no formal certification process for HIPAA, and it applies only in the U.S. Also, many healthcare IT departments use other industry standards or ?have created their own standards for data privacy and security. In their eyes, completely securing a voice application may go well beyond ensuring that a service provider will sign a HIPAA business associate agreement. Issues like user authentication, data privacy in shared spaces, network and device hacking, secure system integration (e.g. with an EHR), should all be addressed. Continue Reading
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