Almost all industries and business functions are being transformed—or are on the verge of transformation—thanks to artificial intelligence (AI). Healthcare is no different. The industry is poised to experience one of the biggest paradigm shifts due to the ongoing and innovative use of several AI-based applications.
One such application that’s powered by AI technology is a chatbot. A chatbot is programmed to respond to and interact with humans the way a person would. And healthcare is already a lucrative market for software vendors and companies that develop chatbot applications for clinicians and patients.
AI chatbots are being increasingly used in the healthcare industry as a way to lower costs and enhance the patient experience. A recent study notes that the yearly cost savings after adopting AI chatbots in the global healthcare industry will rise to $3.6 billion in 2022, from $2.8 million in 2017.
Chatbots help medical practices save significantly on customer (read: patient) service costs. The chatbots free up medical staff for other important work, speed up query response times and answer the routine patient queries.
A growing number of medical practices, clinics and hospitals use chatbots on their websites to engage with patients. These chatbots interact with patients—both current and prospective—to help them find the right physicians who specialize in treating their issues, schedule quick appointments or get access to the best treatment plan.
Here are some more benefits of using chatbots:
- Update electronic health records (EHR) systems with patients’ medical history
- Alert hospital staff in case a patient needs immediate assistance
- Send notifications and alerts for prescription refills
- Provide patients instantly with the right answers to common questions
- Automate the data-entry process and reduce errors or double entries
Despite the benefits, some medical practices believe that chatbots are risky, as AI is still in the nascent stage. These practices will relegate the use of chatbots to only non-critical tasks, such as helping patients navigate the website or providing prepared answers to frequently asked questions.
However, I believe chatbots can have a positive impact on patients’ quality of life—especially patients in isolated and remote areas who have limited access to healthcare services.
Chatbots are a simple and easy way to engage patients and enhance their experience. Let’s take a detailed look at how chatbots are increasing patient engagement in healthcare practices:
Chatbots serve as an instant point of contact for patients
Some patient queries don’t require the dedicated time and attention of a physician, but they also can’t be sidelined. Patients can get impatient when physicians don’t have the time to address their queries. To prevent such instances, physicians should consider using a chatbot.
Imagine a patient suffering from headaches who calls up their physician daily with at least 8-10 queries. Add to this 15-20 new patients each day who all have the same queries. Even though all queries are relevant and genuine, the physician will likely be overwhelmed if they try to respond to each patient individually.
This trend can result in physician burnout and dissatisfaction. To prevent this from happening, a chatbot could take over for the physician. Chatbots can easily go through the first round of discussion with the patient. As a result, the physicians can treat the more serious cases first.
Here’s what a chatbot-patient conversation might look like:
- Chatbot: “Hi John! How can I help you?”
- John: “I have a severe headache.”
- Chatbot: “Oh! Can you tell me when it started?”
- John: “I’ve had it for the last couple of hours.”
- Chatbot: “I see. That’s not normal. Do you have any other symptoms?”
- John: “Yeah, I’m also feeling tired even though I slept for 8 hours last night.”
- Chatbot: “Okay. I recommend you meet your physician soon. He’ll be available at 2 p.m. today. Would you like me to schedule an appointment for you?”
- John: “Yes, please!”
- Chatbot: “Great, done! I have scheduled your appointment.”
- John: “Thanks!”
An intelligent chatbot can engage patients by offering them a personalized experience, even without a physician or customer service representative. It can even guide the patient to the next steps after assessing their symptoms. These could be contacting a physician or prescribing the right safe medication.
In addition, chatbots are helping patients accomplish their daily tasks by tracking their health status, reminding them to take medication on time, following their prescribed diet, arranging physician visits and organizing patient admissions and discharges.
Being an intrinsic part of their daily lives has changed how patients perceive chatbots. In a way, they’ve come to see chatbots as more of a reliable “friend” rather than just a technology.
Patients prefer chatbots over other means of communication
Patients seem to consider chatbots as a preferred mode of communication compared with other channels such as phone or e-mail. That’s why installing chatbots can help medical practices grow their number of patients and enhance engagement.
For example, Brett Swenson, an Arizona physician who operates a small concierge practice, installed a chatbot for the sole purpose of enhancing patient engagement. He ran a campaign for flu shots via chatbots and received a response rate of 30%, compared to just 1% in previous years when he’d used pamphlets and e-mails.
Patients responded much faster through chatbot texting than earlier. This shows that they prefer chatbots, even in a small medical practice. Using chatbots, Swenson was able to enhance patient engagement and improve his practice’s revenue in a short period of time.
The example also shows that daily communication between patients and healthcare providers was lacking an efficient technological solution for a long time. But chatbots have been able to fill this communication gap, much to the benefit of patients.
Chatbots provide added comfort to patients in discussions
Research suggests many patients feel comfortable discussing health-related matters with a non-human, rather than a physician or customer service agent. Fearing that they’ll be misjudged, patients can refrain from asking their physician a trivial or potentially embarrassing question.
As a result, they may exclude some critical symptoms during the discussion or fail to clarify an issue they’re uncomfortable asking. Without full knowledge of all the symptoms, their treatment could be negatively affected. This is why chatbots could prove vital in having engaging health-related conversations with patients, while still ensuring their privacy and putting them at ease.
Chatbots can also reduce patients’ interpersonal anxiety, allowing them to fully disclose their actual problems. It opens the door for honest and open discussions about issues that patients hide due to fear of embarrassment, guilt or shame.
Will chatbots replace physicians?As the chatbot market in healthcare grows exponentially, you may think that chatbots will replace physician involvement one day. This scenario is unlikely because each patient’s problems are unique and some medical conditions are rare and unusual. Therefore, human intervention will always exist.
However, chatbots will become our trustworthy personal assistants in the future, just like a human attendant or nurse. For now, though, physicians should use the technology to educate patients during wait times at their clinics or motivate them to share crucial medical information that can help improve the quality of care.
Rahul Kumar is amedical analyst for Software Advice.
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