5 Ways AI Chatbots Are Changing The U.S. Healthcare Industry
How To Choose The Best AI Chatbot For Your Healthcare Organization
Many years ago, revered 20th-century American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked a question by her student. Many considered her answer somewhat radical, but it forever changed the way we view the role of healthcare in human societies. She was asked what she felt was the first sign of civilization in culture. If you're anything like Mead's student, then several perfectly logical answers are likely bubbling in your mind right now. Clay pots? Tools for hunting and craftsmanship? Religion? Grinding stones? Perhaps even factions and war?
No. Mead stated that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000-year-old fractured femur found in a dig site. The femur, or thighbone, is the longest and strongest bone in the human body, and if you break it, it takes a long time to heal. In the animal kingdom, a broken femur is a death sentence. A fractured leg means you can't escape danger, you can't get to the river to quench your thirst, and you can't hunt or gather. In other words, you're an easy meal for prowling predators and a liability to your tribe. No animal survives a broken leg, and yet, 15,000 years ago, one of our kind did.
The ancient skeleton had a healed femur, which means people took the time to nurse this wounded individual back to health. Presumably, they carried the fallen person to safety, bound up the wound, and brought them food and water for the four to six months it takes for a broken thighbone to heal.
"Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts," Mead said.
Today, most people understand healthcare as a foundational pillar of a civilized society. You can have all the gold palaces and nuclear weapons you want, but without caring for your sick, you fail to gain the respect of others.
Of course, in the modern world, we can do far more than healing broken legs. Year after year, we improve our healthcare organizations to offer increasingly better care, improving outcomes and extending lives. And artificial intelligence is playing a crucial and exciting role in the current advancement of healthcare with AI chatbots. With this in mind, let's look at how healthcare chatbots are transforming the US healthcare industry.
What is an AI Chatbot?
Let's break this down and start with the definition of a chatbot. A chatbot is a computer program designed to simulate human conversation. And, crucially, it works independently from a human operator.
While we think of chatbots as a decidedly modern invention, it might surprise you to find out that they've been around much longer than you think (the first-ever chatbot was created in the 1960s!).
Naturally, chatbots have come a long way since the era of rock and roll and psychedelic prints, and you've probably witnessed much of this evolution yourself. Unfortunately, chatbots have suffered a PR crisis for a long time - early, widely accessible chatbots were fraught with many problems. They often misunderstood what humans were trying to say, gave erroneous answers, or sent people in circles. As a result, interacting with a chatbot could be a lackluster experience at best and a maddeningly frustrating one at worst. However, the overall benefits of chatbots (reduced need for expensive human labor, 24/7 operation, and faster response times) encouraged developers to press on and develop better versions.
But why are traditional chatbots so bad? Traditional chatbots are pre-programmed and scripted. This means they require an immense amount of human input to get them off the ground and functioning correctly, but they still lack the flexibility needed for effective communication. In other words, there's no dynamism, adaptability, or nuance. To a traditional chatbot, if it doesn't have the rules to interpret your keywords and return a response, there's no difference between you typing "What's the best spot for ice cream this side of town?" and "If I were an animal, I'd be a dolphin." They'd both come up blank.
This flaw of traditional chatbots puts them far behind humans when it comes to natural and effective communication. For example, if you were to speak to someone whose language you don't understand and who couldn't speak your language, you'd still likely be able to infer some meaning. We can decipher a lot by analyzing tone, body language, or attempting to use universal symbols (pointing at yourself and saying your name, smiling, putting your hands up to show you mean no harm).
This brings us to AI chatbots, sometimes called conversational AI or adaptive communication bots. AI chatbots utilize cutting-edge technology like machine learning, neural networks, natural language processing, and other forms of artificial intelligence to communicate more humanly. They aren't stumped by uncommon dialects or vocabulary, can infer tone and sentiment even when not explicitly stated, and most importantly, become more capable over time. Through machine learning, AI chatbots become more adept at communicating with humans, and they do this on their own, without human intervention.
There is a vast chasm between traditional chatbots and conversational AI to the point where they have many more differences than similarities. And only one of these systems is fit for the vital role of facilitating communication in a healthcare environment - AI chatbots.
What Is the Role of an AI Chatbot in Healthcare?
At its core, the role of an AI chatbot in healthcare is to improve the patient experience and the overall functioning of the healthcare organization. Therefore, the AI component of these chatbots is paramount in the healthcare industry, where the information given to users needs to be reliable, helpful, and timely.
We often think of chatbots as systems designed to interact solely with customers (or, in this case, patients). However, one of the significant strengths of conversational AI systems is that they can be highly competent in various niche roles simply through exposure to different training data. By this we mean, a healthcare organization doesn't need to have ten chatbots - one for doctors, one for oncology patients, one for pharmacists, and so on. A doctor, patient, or nurse could all converse with the same AI chatbot but have an entirely different experience.
The role of an AI chatbot in healthcare isn't dramatically different from the role of an AI bot elsewhere, but the stakes are higher. Whether they are frontline or support, staff in healthcare organizations often have to work under pressure and to stringent timelines, and sometimes lives are on the line.
What AI chatbots do is make their job easier. For example, a doctor could converse with the AI chatbot to find a patient's medical history (the software can pull the information from insurance data, available data from other clinics, user-inputted data, and even smart device health metrics). This rapid process can help doctors decide on the next steps without any delay. The process can be further expedited by AI-generated care plans, which become highly specific and specialized over time. The bot could also highlight whether a particular course of action is not recommended (it would be unlikely to have as positive an outcome as other options).
Beyond making the process of delivering health services easier for medical professionals, AI chatbots can dramatically improve patient experience and outcomes. We've already touched on how healthcare chatbots can facilitate specialized care plans, but what about actions that require patient agency? Let's get back to broken legs for a second.
Suppose a patient has a broken femur and requires surgery. They will have a checklist of post-op activities they need to complete, some of which involve input from several medical professionals, for example, doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists. With an AI chatbot, the patient doesn't have to contact the medical practitioner if they forget which exercises they need to do on a Thursday or which time of day they need to inject their anti-coagulation treatment. Instead, they can simply ask the bot, who has a full breakdown of their care plan.
In later sections, we'll touch more on the specific use cases of AI healthcare chatbots. Still, the main takeaway here is that these bots are designed to streamline processes and promote positive experiences for everyone in the healthcare industry.
How To Choose an AI Chatbot for Your Healthcare Organization?
The best way to choose the AI chatbot that's right for your healthcare organization is to compare your needs against the chatbots available.
The best conversational AI solutions utilize data analysis algorithms to provide meaningful insights about your organization. These insights can include patient and services insights. For example, 'most patients in this care category and age range choose X treatment plan'. It can also include insights on medical professional performance, treatment efficacy, wait times, and so on. In addition, the best AI chatbots can uncover unfolding trends in real-time, allowing you to respond and adapt your organization's approach as needed.
Having access to a broad range of insights, some of which likely would have been missed without the bot, can also give healthcare organizations a competitive edge.
Often, people become frustrated when they can't ignore they're talking to a bot. Of course, most people will understand they are talking to a bot, but when they're not reminded by stilted text and erroneous results, they converse as they would talking to a human.
It's simply not worth investing in a chatbot that isn't backed by robust NLP and machine learning technology. Instead, you want a chatbot that will advance as your organization advances and one that understands your patients and processes inside out. And, of course, a healthcare chatbot capable of handling complex conversations involving all the industry's nuances.
Ability To Pull Data From Multiple Sources
Data is the fuel of every exceptional AI chatbot, and healthcare organizations have a gargantuan amount of data at their disposal. If you invest in an AI chatbot that's only capable of pulling data from a few apps, you're limiting the potential of your healthcare chatbot.
A Company Committed to Technological Advancement
Lastly, it's a good idea to take note of the company behind the bot. Chatbots are advancing at a rapid rate as increasingly advanced technology becomes available through hard work and research. If you want to have an exceptional AI chatbot today and in the future, go with a company committed to technological expansion.
The Benefits of Implementing an AI Chatbot in Healthcare
Easing the Burden on Medical Professionals
It should come as no surprise that medical professionals are incredibly busy, often managing a considerable number of daily cases. Chatbots can alleviate some of this pressure by taking on the burden of administrative or less critical tasks. For example, consider the immense stress that COVID-19 has placed on healthcare providers. With healthcare chatbots, people who think they might have contracted COVID-19 can discuss their symptoms with an AI chatbot rather than a doctor, freeing up the doctor's time for other patients. COVID-19 is just one example - chatbots can offer advice for a range of simpler medical issues.
Having a chatbot available to make appointments, administer simple medical advice, and keep patients updated about their care plan can save costs in multiple ways. Firstly, having a bot means you don't need bodies in chairs (costly human labor and all the entails). Secondly, increasing patient access to straightforward medical advice reduces the probability of expensive medical interventions in the future. In other words, healthcare chatbots can reduce costs by reducing unnecessary treatments, reducing hospital visits and admissions, and lowering medical professionals' workload.
Just how significant are the potential savings? A 2017 study by Juniper Research estimated that AI-powered chatbots would drive $3.6 billion in cost savings in healthcare by 2022.
Empowering Patients And Improving Patient Experience
Often engaging with healthcare services can be scary, even for minor or routine procedures. Part of this anxiety stems from a loss of control - patients have to trust medical professionals to make the right decision. However, it's also true that we tend to feel less anxious when we believe we have more agency in the process (when we're actively engaged rather than a passive participant). Healthcare chatbots empower patients to take control of their care, actively engaging with the bot whenever they like.
Healthcare chatbots also improve the patient experience by cutting out the clunky aspects of managing health issues. For example, patients don't have to call to make an appointment, waiting in a long queue at an inconvenient time. Instead, they can book appointments through the chatbot at any time of day. They also improve the patient experience in other ways:
- Chatbots make it easier to collect patient feedback, which can then be used to improve the patient experience.
- Patients can ask questions and access reputable medical advice 24/7.
Common Chatbot Use Cases in Healthcare
5 Ways AI Chatbots Are Changing The U.S. Healthcare Industry
- Customer Service and Administration
Just like how chatbots elsewhere are on hand to help you find the right product or update your account information, healthcare chatbots help people navigate healthcare services. They also help with administrative functions like booking appointments, issuing appointment reminders, finding the correct medical forms, and assisting with refilling prescriptions.
Chatbots also provide real-time responses, which increases the likelihood that patients will engage with healthcare services and the number of people who can access services at any one time.
- Triage and Finding Healthcare Services
Chatbots can connect patients with the right services by conducting triaging. AI chatbots do this by asking questions to find the most appropriate doctor, service, or clinic for the patient.
- COVID-19 and Other Public Health Concerns
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for easily accessible and accurate information on issues concerning public health. People not only needed to know what treatment they could access (if needed) but also what actions they could take to limit the spread to others. Beyond coronavirus, healthcare bots can be used to spread awareness about flu outbreaks in a local area and other such public health matters.
If you're interested in a coronavirus bot, we offer a free COVID-19 virtual assistant to support health enterprises and their patients.
Tying into administration, healthcare chatbots can be used to automate repetitive or time-consuming processes in healthcare environments. For example, the bulk of health insurance queries could be handled by the chatbot.
- Collecting Patient Data and Feedback
Collecting patient data on a large scale enables healthcare organizations to obtain actionable insights. Feedback is also a crucial part of improving services and can be done quickly through a chatbot while the patient is already engaged.