Closed but Open: How Medical Coverage Truly Became 24/7
Let's start with a few jaw-dropping statistics:
- The usage of telehealth and virtual care in the U.S. has increased by 1500% compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. (Sia Partners)
- 76% of all patients would like to continue using telemedicine going forward, even after the pandemic subsides. (McKinsey & Company)
- Providers have rapidly scaled offerings and are seeing 50 to 175 times the number of telhealth visits than they did before. (McKinsey & Company)
- With the acceleration of consumer and provider adoption of telehealth and the extension of telehealth beyond virtual urgent care, up to $250 billion of current U.S. healthcare spend could potentially be virtualized. (McKinsey & Company)
To fully appreciate and grasp the meaning behind these figures, we must first travel back in time to 2019, which, let's face it, feels like it was centuries ago.
Only eight months ago, telemedicine and virtual care were still considered nice-to-have features, championed by innovationists and rejected by skeptical traditionalists. In 2019, only 11% of all Americans had ever used telehealth, and only 30% had ever interacted with a chatbot for healthcare. U.S. telehealth companies’ total annual revenue was estimated at $3 billion, a crumb of the healthcare industry pie, which spends $3 trillion on average a year.
"Back in those days", if you wanted to see a physician, you would have to… well, go see them. You would schedule an appointment, sometimes many weeks in advance, and travel to the doctor's clinic, be it across the street or miles away. Upon arrival, you would need to wait for an average of 19 minutes and 16 seconds for a visit that would last an average of 14 minutes. All of this, of course, during working hours, which were on average between 8:00 am - 5:00 pm. If you wanted to schedule this appointment or even just speak with someone in advance, you would have to call your medical provider's contact center, which was hardly an enjoyable experience. In fact, in a 2015 survey conducted by Ipsos, almost 20% of Americans said that the healthcare industry ranked last in customer service.
Digging into the pain points that obstruct contact centers from delivering quality patient engagement and care, Spok's 2019 Contact Centers in Healthcare Report surveyed more than 300 healthcare professionals across U.S. hospitals and health systems. When asked to describe their contact center's number one challenge, 23% of respondents said it was the recruitment and retention of call center staff, 16% said that the agents don't have the information necessary to proactively engage with patients, and another 16% blamed insufficient processes. Responding to a follow-up question on how this challenge impacted their organization; 55% said it (the contact center) does not support patient engagement or patient experience, while another 44% claimed this challenge prevents them from turning the contact center into a revenue-generating hub.
Despite their inefficiencies, almost all surveyed healthcare professionals agreed that contact centers are a vital component of their patient engagement strategy, with 70% of respondents believing their contact centers do contribute to overall better patient journeys. The problem is, they're not always open.
Let's examine the "heat map" below. It represents two weeks (July 13th - 27th) of patient usage of Hyro's conversational AI virtual assistant deployed on Novant Health's website. The dark-blue time slots indicate high usage, while the grey and white time slots indicate very low usage or no usage at all. Novant's customer service contact center operates on Monday-Friday from 8:00 am - 6:00 pm. As demonstrated below, the majority of patients interacted with the virtual assistant during business hours. Yet, we can clearly see that on most days—especially at the beginning of the week (Monday-Tuesday)—many patients engaged with the virtual assistant before (6:00 - 7:00 am) and after (7:00 - 11:00 pm) hours of operation. Furthermore, on weekends when the contact center was closed, patients engaged with the virtual assistant at almost all times of the day.
Staying Open with Conversational AI
By implementing conversational AI, Novant has been able to provide its patients with round the clock medical coverage. When newfound patient demand spiked online, Hyro furnished Novant with a "customer service rep" that never sleeps, eliminating potentially high waiting times around popular patient services. An AI-powered virtual assistant with regularly updated information, Hyro is able to field patients' questions and requests, and even schedule a doctor's appointment for them, 24/7.
One common ask around AI is, doesn't this replace jobs, at a time when people need them most? Far from it. Conversational AI, at its best, has the potential to enhance the abilities of its users, not replace them entirely. When considering the high turnover rate at contact centers, it's easy to see how artificial intelligence can empower newly trained customer service representatives to excel. The virtual assistant handles the initial part of the conversation, ascertaining the caller’s name, date of birth, condition, insurance, etc. The information collected is displayed in real-time on a designated dashboard for the operator to prepare for a hand-off and jump in at any point, if necessary. What this combination of human and machine adds up to on a larger scale, is not the depletion but the creation of viable employment opportunities for untrained workers in the healthcare sector.
Widening the timespan of medical coverage with emerging technologies has only become stronger in the face of COVID-19. In a well-circulated article, Kay Firth-Butterfield, Head of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at the World Economic Forum, urges health organizations to adopt virtual care and conversational AI to help supply accurate information and prevention methods surrounding COVID-19. Advocating for broader use of conversational AI as a tool of communication and engagement with concerned patients, Firth-Butterfield writes:
“The intuitive interface of chatbots presents a low-friction approach to disseminate critical information to vast populations. And Chatbots, like websites, are available 24/7.”
A Conversational AI Gold Rush
The promise of conversational AI to transform any healthcare organization into a 24/7 establishment is no longer confined to the realms of healthcare futurists and technologists. In one of our recent blog posts, my colleague and Hyro COO Michael Blumental covered the astonishing adoption of conversational AI in healthcare and beyond during COVID-19. Bolstered by the arrival of tech giants such as Microsoft into the conversational healthcare sphere, the global conversational AI market size is now expected to grow from $4.8 billion in 2020 to $13.9 billion by 2025, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 21.9%.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Dr. Ray Dorsey, the Director of the Center for Health and Technology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, was able to best describe the tectonic shift of the entire healthcare industry towards telehealth, virtual care, and conversational AI in a recent interview for The Lancet:
“I'd estimate that the majority of patient consultations in the United States are now happening virtually. There has been something like a ten-fold increase in the last couple of weeks. It's as big a transformation as any ever before in the history of US health care.”
Want to discuss the new conversational healthcare ecosystem? Planning on implementing conversational AI as part of your patient engagement strategy? Not sure how your live agents will react to conversational AI? Contact me 24/7 😉 at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website and blog to learn more.