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?
Who would have thought that intelligent virtual assistants could be used as patient engagement tools? The same virtual assistants that live on websites you might traffic that help you find site details, search the site or ask more detailed questions about information contained on the site.
Apparently this is the exact line of thinking of the folks at Next IT, a company that develops virtual assistant technology. According to Victor Morrison, vice president of healthcare markets, virtual assistants are the “silver bullet” to the patient engagement quandary.
The Washington state-based technology firm currently supports several major companies including United and Alaska airlines, Gonzaga University, Amtrak and Aetna. Though it’s only current healthcare experience is on the payer side, the company entered into a partnership with a major pharmaceutical company a few weeks ago and is expected to bring a new virtual assistant “personality” to market in a few months, said Morrison.
Next IT has partnered with Aetna for three years, creating for the company through its Human Emulation Software, “Agent Ann,” a virtual assistant that lives on Aetna’s registration page of its website. There, Ann provides immediate assistance to new members visiting the site for the first time. Ann debuted in early 2010 when many new members were first beginning to use their plans, and “she” is available to members 24/7, making it easier to do business over the web.
Members are able to type in their questions, using their own natural language and get the information they need to continue registration. Results show that she’s having an impact.
According to Next IT’s website, more than half of people registering on the website for the first time engage with Ann, “Because Ann does such a good job walking members through registration, Aetna reported that during the fifth month after implementation, they saw a 29 percent reduction in calls to their member-service technical help desk.”
Because of Ann, Aetna is seeing a reduction in operating expenses while still providing the service that members expect.
Most impressive, though, is that half of all people registering on the Aetna site engage Ann. Even Aetna’s covered members using the member’s only site are able to use Ann to view claims, look up physicians for services and even estimate the amount a service will cost with a specific physician.
According to Morrison, the system used by Aetna will be considered somewhat light in relation to what Next IT has planned for the clinical setting. Specifically, it will be more proactive depending on a patient’s needs, he said.
“Interactive virtual assistants are the magic bullet for patient engagement,” Morrison said. “What we can do is create and interface with smart phone and smart devices.”
With the right interface, which can be created to incorporate voice activation, like what’s found in Siri, tools like virtual assistants that are employed by large and enterprise health systems may be able to create a link with a patient, to interact with and monitor activity on a regular basis and to engage them through a protected portal such as a patient portal.
Ultimately, tools like Aetna’s Ann, and the one used by the U.S. Army, which have personalities and back stories built into their profiles (designed to create trust with users, Morrison said) will be able to push information, reminders and updates to patients who sign up with the service to help them stay engaged with their caregivers.
“Once we understand the patient and we begin to engage, we can push information to them to push engagement,” said Morrison. “We’ll be able to ping them with a text message, and push medication reminders. We’ll even be able to ask them questions like ‘How are you feeling today.’”
Depending on the patient’s response, if after a certain number of non-positive responses, the assistant will be able to automatically schedule an appointment with a physician or manage some other pre-established message to the patient’s care provider to ensure the patient is being contacted to ensure proper care continuum.
But, the assistants’ interaction can be set up to be much more than pushing information; they can actually engage individual with medication reminders, for example, and provide guidance for recommended doses, where to take an injection (in situations where that is appropriate), and improve patient understanding of a procedure or medication.
Patients can set up reminders through their smart devices, schedule appointments and can rate their health experience and how they feel, which can help physicians begin to create a comprehensive patient case history.
Based on this, virtual assistants may contribute to a more engage patient population, especially if people are able to so easily interact with them as is showcased in the video. Where patient portals and other engagement strategies, like social media, may be lacking, this technology may, in fact, be the magic bullet Next IT believes it to be.