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You click open the homepage of a product website and immediately a small chat window pops up from the bottom right corner. It is displaying the message “Hi, I am Janet. How may I assist you today?” A few years back, you would have been startled (and pleased) but now you just start typing in even though you know you are describing your problem to an artificial conversational entity – the chatbot.

Thanks to that marriage made in heaven between natural language processing and machine learning, the chatbots are getting to be more responsive, smarter and therefore more human-like in their conversational abilities. Moreover, being software which can crunch up loads of data in seconds, the chatbots are also superhuman – alert, data-driven, dedicated, untiring, reliable and most importantly, available 24/7. The bots are also free from the human flaws of laziness, prejudice, impulsiveness and most importantly (for the healthcare domain), carelessness.

Chatbots and Healthcare

Although chatbots in general, have taken the business world by storm, it is soon evident that where healthcare domain is concerned, chatbots are veritably bringing about a major paradigm shift.

And why?

The modern humans, while healthy, may favour solitude, immersing in social media and other technology based distractions but when down and ill, still crave for a sympathetic and reassuring voice and an attentive ear, not to say, someone to remember the suffering and remind and urge to take steps towards cure.

Except that, by now, as children of the on-demand, instant gratification culture, waiting is unacceptable. Hence, the chatbots - the ultimate in support and assistance for a not so narrow range of tasks traditionally performed by tier-1 patient engagement operatives. Comprised of just a few lines of code, the chatbot added as a contact in a person’s favorite social messaging application immediately adds that person into bot provider’s information network.

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How can a chatbot help you?

Nowadays, healthcare chatbots, be they text or voice based interfaces, are relied on as much as or even more than on humans (in the same role) for day-to-day assistance in wellness and patient care scenarios. The most popular use of these smart algorithms has been as a symptoms checker, both for the potential patient as well as for the caregiver and the physician. Another popular role is that of a smart digital assistant, once again, both for the patients as well as for the clinicians. There are also chatbots out there catering to niche segments – for example, for women’s reproductive wellness, assistance to the elderly, to the cancer patients and so on.

Here is a list of roles that the chatbots have been playing of late.

First level primary care and Emergency first aid

Google search for simple answers is increasingly becoming a nerve racking process. One is faced with thousands of search results, suggestions often contradicting one another and a lot of content which may be sponsored - misleading sites with false claims or just plain misinformation

The situation may not be improved by waiting for a message response from a busy physician or by planning an emergency visit to a clinic located a long way away. A tried and tested chatbot service, especially trained in dealing solely with such emergencies, is often a heaven –sent answer at such junctures.

Answering the FAQ

There are many simple medical questions that crop up before/during/after treatment which are of critical importance to the patient but answering which do not require the full attention and time of a physician. An example is the nervous and clueless state of mind of the parents of newborns and young kids. The numerous questions about care and precautions are critical for each patient but maintaining staff simply to answer the same questions a dozen times a day may be avoided by using the never-tiring chatbots.

While drastically cutting down wait times, the chatbots also relieve the overworked healthcare professionals in often understaffed clinical setups.

Dispensers of drug info

There are more than a few chatbot services out there which are expert disseminators of up-to-date drug related info - drug interactions and active ingredients, indications and contraindications as well as alternative medicines etc which are ideal resources for both professional clinicians and the patients/caretakers. For example, a skin specialist may need appropriate data about the active ingredient in certain topical drugs before he can prescribe them to a breastfeeding patient.

Faithful assistant in the pocket

Chatbots integrated with relevant mobile apps help the sick yet busy and on-the-go patient to schedule appointments, issue reminders, manage test results, information on dietary choices and even initiate a medication refill. In the role of a virtual nurse, these chatbots are trained using customized questions and their answers regularly handled by physicians. The chatbots are thus enabled to act according to personalized care plans accessible to them and even process patient inputs – for example, symptoms, using voice recognition technology and analyze the seriousness of the issue and steps to be taken. Overall, the bot can very well play the role of a lifestyle coach.

Remote patient monitoring

The personal assistant chatbots are especially invaluable in post-discharge scenarios requiring continued observation, for example, in the case of hypertension. Following up with such patients becomes easier for the healthcare organization and for the individual doctors, the bots help to recollect the relevant details from each encounter - test results, treatments, prescriptions etc. Thus patient engagement remains seamless, doctor’s productivity is not compromised and chances for re-admission is reduced.

Of late, patients leaving the hospital are expected to use new gadgets and even smart wearables such as bands, clips, patches, pumps etc which are expected to help the healthcare provider manage the home care monitoring.The chatbots can even provide information and assistance in the use and maintenance of the newly acquired equipment.

Population health management care tool

The inherent advantage of chatbot technology - easy accessibility to/by an extensive, geographically dispersed population makes it a valuable care coordination tool, enabling effective automation of education/awareness tools and social outreach programmes involving populations where the key challenge is difficulty in access.

In research and treatment

While doctors are hard pressed for time to indulge in the latest studies and findings in their specialization areas, the AI enabled bot teams can comb through extensive data - every new piece of research, for example, experimental solutions available pertaining to cancer, and provide the healthcare providers as well as the patients more personalized recommendations. Experts believe that through extensive data analysis machines will soon predict diseases better than humans. As machine learning becomes more advanced, capable of image recognition, sentiment analysis etc, the relevance of extracted data will increase and can even be automatically provided on outreach and support tools. Thus more personalized treatment is possible.

In conclusion..

Efficient and seamless patient engagement and case management has always been the challenge for healthcare organizations. It is being proved that in the unusual case of chatbots, we have a technology where we are not forced to choose between cost and efficacy; the chatbots replacing humans for certain functions definitely makes the process more effective while saving money for both the patient and the healthcare provider, both in the short and long terms. A win-win situation which can only get better as the bots become more and more “learned” in their tasks. Here again, the advantage is manifold since entire fleets of such bots can benefit equally from a centralized, efficient knowledge management system and deep learning processes.

Beyond doubt, healthcare industry is leaping ahead relying more and more on automation but paradoxically, technologies such as chatbots are expected to improve the human side of care than otherwise, as the patient gets attended to, instantly regardless of time and place, which is what care is all about.

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