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The chatbot will take your questions, now

Among other challenges, chatbot developers must be careful to provide credible information for users, which is more important in healthcare than in other industries, such as retail.

Jeff Rowe | Dec 12, 2018 09:20 am

If you’re having an online chat session with, say, a big retailer, chances are the person you’re chatting with isn’t really, well, a person.

That’s because so-called chatbots are increasingly used to handle a wide range of online consumer interactions in many industries, and according to a recent article at Modern Healthcare those chatbots are coming to healthcare.

According to the article, while “providers are putting chatbots in place on their end, helping patients navigate their care and stay on care plans, payers are getting into the chatbot game too, with AI that's designed to help members understand their benefits.”

Said Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health and innovation for Accenture's health business, “You're starting to see the early adoption of chatbots in healthcare across all aspects of the patient journey. In a healthcare context, chatbots provide simplicity and convenience for consumers and better labor, productivity and connection to consumers for providers.”

Northwell Health, for example, is trying out chatbots to help patients navigate oncology care, and Premera Blue Cross recently launched Premera Scout, a chatbot to help patients understand their benefits. The Mayo Clinic is delving deeper into the technology by researching voice-activated bots. 

All are seeking to improve patient experience and save money.

“If you're trying to meet patients where they are and where it's convenient for them, then the place to meet them is texting on a mobile phone,” said Greg Johnsen, CEO of LifeLink, which powers the technology for emergency department chatbots.  He explained that chatbots can improve the customer experience, and improve efficiency, and if most of the dialogue and the content is automated, costs will fall sharply.

While most if not all organizations using chatbots are so early in their chatbot programs that they don't have cost savings numbers yet, patient engagement is much easier to measure.  According to Sabina Zak, Northwell's vice president of community health, “about half the patients Northwell asks to try using post-discharge care-management chatbots say yes, and 96% of those who enroll and complete at least one conversation say it's helpful.”

Northwell is also using chatbots to keep patients engaged after they're discharged from the hospital. Any patient—or their caregiver—enrolled in transitional care management is eligible to use the chatbot service, available in both English and Spanish. 

A link sent to patients launches a HIPAA-compliant web interface, usable on mobile devices, where patients have conversations with chatbots about either their specific conditions or more general discharge topics. A patient who was in the hospital for heart failure might get questions about their weight, for example.

There are, of course, limitations to the potential of chatbots in healthcare, including how much they can actually know, since they're programmed to do a limited set of things. According to stakeholders, that’s why chatbot designers are creating their workflows to lead to real humans should the need arise.

In the end, health systems, hospitals and payers must understand how chatbots complement their other customer service channels, enabling them to lead to humans when they can't handle a request.