July 5, 2020
Restoring Regular Healthcare with AI-Powered Outreach
Senior NLP Engineer at Hyro
A Fractured Doctor-Patient Relationship
A 2012 study by the University of California at San Francisco's Center for Excellence in Primary Care, determined that a primary care physician working 43 hours a week for 47.1 weeks a year, can accommodate a maximum panel of 983 patients.
In reality, the average size of a physicians' patient panel in the U.S. ranges from 1,800 - 2,000.
This disparity, created by a severe shortage of supply to an ever-growing population's demand, is having a detrimental impact on the doctor-patient relationship. The resulting physician burnout has been a point of concern for healthcare professionals for years, prompting outcries for systemic overhauls and effective workplace programs. A 2018 Geneia survey paints a grim picture; out of a sample size of 401 working physicians, 81% of respondents said the quality time doctors can spend with patients has decreased in the last ten years, 77% know a physician who is likely to stop practicing medicine in the next five years due to burnout, and 83% said they are personally at risk for burnout at some point in their career. These disturbing statistics reflect a concerning degradation in the quality of care in the U.S. leading to high patient churn rates—recent analysis by Buxton found that American health systems are experiencing a patient churn rate of 48%. Moreover, a 2018 study published by the American Journal of Managed Care determined that physician burnout was associated with twice the odds of involvement in patient safety incidents, and a two-fold increased risk of low patient-reported satisfaction.
Essential steps to alleviate burnout have already started taking shape and proliferate across the healthcare sector. Solutions such as reducing the size of patient panels and making scribes available to physicians for EMR and data entry tasks, have proved viable and, in many instances, successful. But in January 2020, a new and utterly unexpected crisis would emerge, reshuffling the cards entirely and offering the healthcare industry a challenge of epic proportions.
The COVID-19 Effect
The emergence of COVID-19 shook the foundations of an already ailing doctor-patient relationship. As countless visits, procedures, and consultations have been postponed or canceled due to newly imposed social distancing restrictions and genuine fear of infection, maintaining a steady track of patients' health became all but impossible. In essence, as the COVID-19 pandemic made landfall in the U.S., the “feeling sick = visit the doctor's office” equation ceased to exist. In mid-April, Providence St. Joseph Health reported that the volume of heart attack patients fell by about 50% in March compared with the same month last year. Reflecting the general mood amongst healthcare executives, CEO Dr. Rod Hochman commented that "the notion that people have just stopped having heart attacks is too good to be true."
Positioned, of course, on the other side of this spectrum are the patients themselves. Although several digital health solutions were hyper-shot to the forefront of medical practices in a dazzlingly quick response to the crisis, telemedicine and virtual care management are, simply put, not for everyone. A close examination of a patient’s education level can often establish their comfort with digital healthcare. A Pew Research Center poll found that 44% of high school level educated (or less) Americans feel it is sometimes difficult for them to find the information they need online compared to 22% of their college-educated (or higher) peers. 46% of “gadget poor” Americans (owning only one technology access pathway - smartphone, tablet/computer, or broadband connection) feel stressed about all the information they need to keep track of. And then there is the matter of age. Although strides have been made in digital adoption by American seniors, 73% of adults over the age of 65 say they still need help using a new electronic device.
Democratizing Digital Healthcare
As part of our mission to empower all patients to communicate easily and seamlessly with their providers through omnichannel conversational AI, we launched our complimentary COVID-19 Virtual Assistant. Along with our clients, we witnessed the incredible need this initiative fulfilled for real-time symptoms triaging and certified information on COVID-19. Through the assistant’s Natural Language Understanding (NLU) capabilities, we enabled patients to speak or type freely using their own vernacular to receive the care they need, notwithstanding slang or even grammatical and spelling errors.
But it wasn’t enough. As we logged hundreds of thousands of conversations across COVID-19 virtual assistants deployed by some of the leading healthcare organizations in the U.S., we started ideating and strategizing our next “plan of attack.” In full appreciation of the fact that we were able to reduce the stress on overloaded first-touch contact centers, but have yet to fully remend the doctor-patient relationship, we decided to “go on the offensive.” Taking into account the many thousands of patients who are unaware, unable, or uninterested in seeking medical care digitally, we devised a conversational AI platform that would bring that medical care to their doorstep (or, more precisely, to their cellphones).
Consider the following statistics:
- SMS is the #1 data application in the United States, with over 97% of American mobile customers using text messaging for daily data communication
- The average American checks their phone for messages 47 times a day
- 90% of SMS messages are read within 3 minutes
- American smartphone users aged 18-24 send around 2,000 text messages in a month
- SMS messages have a 209% higher response rate than phone, email, or Facebook
- SMS messages have a 98% open rate
It’s hard to overstate the effectiveness of SMS messaging as a tool for outreach. Long used by businesses to promote themselves and engage their customers, we decided to combine our conversational AI and NLU techniques with this existing technology, creating 2-way AI-Powered Outreach.
To aid physicians in the otherwise insurmountable task of checking in and following up on their thousands of patients, the highly scalable AI-Powered Outreach Platform triggers automatic SMS messaging based on criteria set by the physician in advance. Depending on the legacy scheduling systems already in place, the conversational platform offers varying outputs and call-to-actions, prompting the patient to provide medical information, details, rescheduling preferences, questions, or any other input using their natural language. These exchanges are automatically submitted in real-time to a designated interface and to any form of patient management system.
Automating a process that has been completely disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, the AI-Powered Outreach Platform has the potential to restore consistent doctor-patient communication and possibly even save lives. By proactively reaching out, the virtual assistant can flag at-risk patients and hopefully regain their confidence in seeking urgent and non-urgent medical care.
To find out more about how the AI-Powered Outreach Platform can help your physicians reconnect with their patients, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn about the Natural Language capabilities powering this platform and all other Hyro conversational AI solutions, feel free to contact me at email@example.com or visit our blog.