What Role will Health Chatbots Play in our New Normal?

Moving towards patient-centred, dialogue-based healthcare

COVID has probably been the biggest cultural disruptor of our lifetime. As a result, it has triggered a dramatic digital transformation. While we generally tread a predictable path along the technology adoption curve, the COVID crisis has caused a massive leap across the curve. Remote care has been catapulted from the realm of the early adopters to the majority. Patients and providers have embraced remote care out of necessity, but it is here to stay. Chatbots have played a vital role in scaling the response to the pandemic. Looking ahead, what will our new normal for healthcare look like and what role might chatbots play?

Chatbots a natural way to scale during COVID

Chatbots really came into their own during COVID. The technology was already widely used, accepted and trusted in customer service. It was perfectly poised to help scale the response for the pandemic. Chatbots are the natural way to inform the public, provide rapid triage and focus healthcare resources.

Educating the public through dialogue

Chatbots are the obvious way to educate the public on an unprecedented scale and with precious little time to prepare. They are able to provide information, quickly in a natural, conversational style. Rather than having to search and navigate websites for information, people can ask questions in their own way and get rapid answers and advice. On the flip side, analytics allow public health educators to see the trends in questions being asked and to fill the information gaps.

Source: Bots4impact Public Health Demo (Background: Unsplash/Elena Mozhvilo)

Keeping information current in a crisis

In the midst of a crisis, information is changing on an hourly basis. Keeping public health information current is extremely challenging, but critical. Updating a single centralized chatbot knowledge base and deploying across web and social media is far more efficient than trying to keep distributed content updated across multiple channels.

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Scaling and automating routine care

There’s no substitute for personal care and some patients will need to see a doctor, but a large proportion of routine care can be automated and scaled with chatbot technology. When healthcare resources are scarce, it means that resources can be freed up to focus on the most complex and time critical cases that need expert attention.

Accelerating the care response

Providing a rapid care response in a crisis without sacrificing the patient-centred care model, is the ultimate goal. Using chatbots as the first point of contact ensures that everyone can get fast access to information, symptom checking and triage. Using conversational technology ensures that individual questions and concerns can be accommodated while automating the triage process.

The future: moving beyond symptom checking and triage

Chatbots have played a fundamental role in scaling the response to COVID-19. The majority of use cases so far have focused on public health education, symptom checking and triage. The big opportunities moving forward lie in enabling actionable steps after this initial patient contact. For instance scheduling appointments for those that need to see or speak with a live care provider, recommending and referring people for testing, and following up with results and guidance following testing.

Ensuring care is patient-centred through dialogue

Looking at Picker’s principles for patient-centred care, it is clear that chatbots can contribute at virtually every level. From providing information to patients and their families to access and integration of care to emotional support. By focusing on a conversational approach it is possible to provide a faster care response at scale, while keeping it personal.


Enabling touch-points throughout the patient journey

Bertalan Mesko, the Medical Futurist, recently published a very useful article about the use of digital health technologies in the fight against COVID-19. The infographic shows the vast array of technologies and the various roles they play in the patient journey. It provides a useful vision for the future, although we would argue that there are more key use cases for chatbots both during and after COVID. We will explore each of these.

Source: The Medical Futurist, May 2020

Increasing dialogue to reduce re-admissions

Moving forward, chatbots can provide a vital role in ongoing monitoring and follow-up to maximize patient outcomes. When patients are discharged, whether after COVID or any other condition, they often leave without sufficient information or resources to avoid re-admission. Sometimes this may be due to limited resources but very often it is because people are unwilling to ask for information or discover later that they lack the knowledge and resources to recover at home. Chatbots mean that people can ask questions without embarrassment, check symptoms and get help at home, helping to reduce re-admissions.

Reducing risk of infection

Conversational technology also has a vital role to play in minimizing the spread of infection. From education and guidance to contact tracing, dialogue can provide a personalized, less intrusive approach.

Testing new treatments

Chatbots can play a vital role in recruiting patients and qualifying their suitability for new drug testing trials. From simply speeding up the process, to helping patients understand their results and connecting with a provider if needed.

Source: Bots4impact Lab Test Demo (Background: Unsplash/Bill Coxford)

Remote consults

In the past few months we have settled into a new normal of working from home and remote consults. Although painful in some ways, many people have discovered the joy of avoiding the daily commute and freeing up time for families and hobbies. Many will be reluctant to lose these freedoms. Similarly, many will be reluctant to travel to see a doctor when they can simply check their symptoms with a bot or do a remote consult. Sensely, Gyant, Symptomate, Buoy Health, Ada Health, Your.MD, Babylon are all successful examples of symptom checkers. The Medical Futurist provides a great review of the top 12 health chatbots.

Serving rural communities

For rural communities, chatbots providing education, symptom checking, triage and remote consults will infinitely improve the patient experience and help to stretch scarce healthcare resources. For ongoing care in remote communities, chatbots such as Florence, the personal nurse can help with medication reminders and health tracking.

Managing chronic conditions

This is one area where chatbots could significantly improve quality of care for patients over the long term. Whether for cancer, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, chatbots can provide condition monitoring, drug reminders and lifestyle guidance such as diet and exercise. Chatbots in this space include Vik and Lark for chronic condition management and ViviBot for young people with cancer.

Mental health support for our health professionals

In the past few years we have seen some very successful chatbots for mental health such as Woebot. During the past few months we’ve seen how vitally important it is to support our overstretched healthcare professionals too.

Custom chatbots for specific use cases

Chatbots have already proved their worth in healthcare, scaling and automating the provision of routine care. According to a Crunchbase analysis in December 2019, VCs has invested $800 million in chatbot healthcare startups. The next wave of opportunity is for custom chatbots designed with rich content for specific use cases. For example qualifying patients for lab testing, recruiting for clinical trials or public health campaigns. Success of these chatbots will depend on the depth and quality of the content, the machine learning capabilities and the level of integration with existing lab, medical and scheduling systems.

Navigating our new normal through dialogue

At this point none of us really know what the new normal will look like. There will probably be uncertainty and anxiety for many months ahead. We may eagerly increase our social bubbles but be reluctant to use public facilities, attend conferences and visit hospitals for a very long time. We’ve become quite comfortable with our new found freedoms working from home. We might have to reluctantly return to the office at some point soon, but thanks to chatbots, we won’t be wasting so much time in doctors’ waiting rooms anymore.

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What Role will Health Chatbots Play in our New Normal? was originally published in Chatbots Life on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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