Key Post Highlights
> Not all chatbots are created equal — some perform simple customer service tasks, while others can assist with clinical care.
> Chatbots can do wonders for user experience, patient outcomes, and hospital efficiency.
> There’s a lot we can learn from how chatbots were used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She was created in 1966 by Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at MIT. She was named after Eliza Doolittle, the leading lady in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (later adapted to the hit Broadway musical, My Fair Lady). This Eliza, however, was not a Londoner with a Cockney accent seeking speech lessons. She was the very first chatbot.
Chatbots have come a long way since 1966. They have surged in popularity recently, with the release of extremely advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technology, like ChatGPT. That’s a whole new beast. But traditional chatbots — computer programs that use AI and natural language processing to simulate conversation — don’t appear to be going anywhere.
In the healthcare space, increasingly more health systems are using chatbots on their websites — a trend largely spurred by the rise of telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are 4 things you need to know about how chatbots can have a meaningful impact on patients and health systems alike — and why you can’t afford to leave them out of your digital strategy.
1. A chatbot can do a lot for user experience.
Chatbots are the definition of multifunctional.
A chatbot can:
- Book appointments
- Explain benefits in simple terms
- Help patients check the status of claims
- Answer FAQs
- Provide information that doesn’t require a medical specialist, like how long someone is contagious after having a particular illness or what immunizations are recommended at different ages
- Send reminders about appointments, taking medication, and refilling prescriptions
- Assist with inventory
Whether it’s because it’s even easier to perform tasks, or because they don’t have to spend time scouring through the website for answers to simple questions, chatbots’ capabilities can boost user experience.
2. They can even improve patient outcomes and hospital efficiency.
AllianceChicago — a network of more than 70 community health centers across 19 states — learned this firsthand. Between May and November 2021, AllianceChicago identified parents and guardians of pediatric patients who were due for well-child visits and immunizations, and sent them invitations via email and text to interact with a chatbot. They compared the results to parents and guardians who were reminded in more traditional ways.
Chatbot engagement yielded:
- 27% relative increase in well-child appointments and immunizations
- 8% increase in engagement among pediatric populations receiving care in community health centers
- Survey results indicating high levels of satisfaction using the chatbot
Additionally, chatbots can improve operational efficiency and cut costs. They are relatively inexpensive to operate, provide consistent results, can relieve pressure on overworked call centers, and can be easily re-trained if information or protocols change. And of course, they’re available 24/7.
3. Experience, outcomes, and efficiency from chatbots came together during COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed a chatbot called Clara, an interactive questionnaire for people to figure out what to do if they suspected that they had COVID-19. The questionnaire was not made to diagnose, treat, or prevent the illness. Instead, it walked patients through their symptoms and possible exposures to recommend their next steps.
This was a massive win for hospitals as they struggled with dwindling resources and deluges of calls to their call centers. Instead of having to screen anyone with any cold or flu-like symptoms — a process which was creating a major bottleneck in health systems — hospitals were able to allocate their limited resources to the people who needed them most.
When Northwell Health in New York — an epicenter of the outbreak in the US — began using chatbots to refer patients for care and give out test results in real time, they freed up call center staff. Northwell was able to redirect about 100 call center staff members to manage more complex issues, like answering patients’ questions.
It was also great for patients’ satisfaction, adherence, and outcomes. An April 2020 study of users’ first experiences with COVID-19 chatbots found that chatbots excelled when it came to patient satisfaction and their likelihood of following the chatbot’s advice.
4. Important tip: It’s critical to know which type of chatbot you’re using before designing your strategy.
There’s a difference between old school chatbots and clinical assistant chatbots. Some chatbots help users with simple tasks, like scheduling appointments. Others, like virtual nurses, are actually designed to assist with clinical care.
The decision to use a chatbot for clinical care is a major one. Depending on how far they go, there can be ethical, liability, and privacy concerns. Your job as a strategist is to focus on how chatbots can aid user experience — not how to change a hospital’s entire healthcare delivery system. You can certainly make recommendations, but the people who oversee care delivery will need to sign off before you install a chatbot that delves into the clinical side of things.
So before you start integrating chatbots into strategy, make sure you have the right go-aheads.
What's next for chatbots?
One word: ChatGPT. But I can’t with that right now.