While chatbots have been around for a few years now, the concept of healthcare chatbots is relatively new. There is much debate about what the capabilities of healthcare chatbots should be. Some believe that they could replace physicians in specific cases, while others think that this concept is ludicrous. The bottom line is that conversational AI and chatbots are often the first point of contact for patients with customer service issues, basic questions, health concerns, or inquiries for further support or communication. As with other industries such as travel, retail, or banking that use some sort of conversational automation, a healthcare conversational AI agent would simplify and improve a customer’s experience but also support healthcare workers by automating repetitive tasks and interactions with internal systems.
The Role of Conversational AI in Healthcare
Within the healthcare industry, conversational AI can triage patients and get them to the person or department that can help them most effectively. Patients should find comfort in virtual AI assistants and understand that they are there to help. They can be a reliable and accurate way for patients to understand any non-urgent symptoms or other health concerns rather than turning to online searches.
Currently, conversational AI is used in the healthcare industry for customer-facing applications such as intake, scheduling appointments, and basic Q&A around medications. Some applications are even more advanced, such as scheduling visits and procedures, answering targeted medical questions, interacting with patients post-discharge to reduce readmissions, and performing comprehensive medication reviews.
How to Choose the Right Healthcare Conversational AI
Choosing what application is best for your business or how best to implement it can seem like a daunting task. Below are some considerations to keep in mind when choosing the right healthcare chatbot solution for your business.
#1. Keep it simple.
The design of the virtual AI assistant you choose must be simple overall. You don’t want users or patients to feel intimidated by the agent. For example, a simple solution that resembles basic SMS messaging produces few barriers for novice users. Consider a provider that lets you design your conversational AI agent to fit your own process instead of only offering "out of the box" solutions that cannot be changed or require significant effort to update.
Another way to keep it simple is to introduce virtual AI assistants (and their presumptive tasks) in phases. Don’t roll out all of the features at once; this could be overwhelming to patients and employees alike. If it seems too complicated at first glance, more people are likely to exit the chat altogether and choose to speak to an agent.
A good starting point may be to choose one (or even two) specific tasks or cases to implement conversational AI. This will be able to provide a small and controlled environment for the AI assistants to do their thing. Once the conversational AI agents have proven that they are efficient and accurate, it will be much easier to upsell the idea of other tasks to be implemented by agents and for other departments to use them.
#2. Keep it authentic.
When incorporating conversational AI into your business, you want patients to feel like they are being taken care of and are having organic conversations. The AI agents being configured must be able to keep the conversation flowing, and it should always resemble a natural, human-to-human conversation. If a customer chooses to end the conversation with the bot, there must be a seamless, uninterrupted transition to a live human agent to make things more comfortable.
An authentic user experience is vital for the success of any business, let alone a virtual AI assistant they are implementing. If potential conversations are pre-configured into the assistant, make sure they can produce the desired result. Make sure they can acquire the most basic information from patients at the initial start of the conversation, understand what to do with the answers from yes/no questions or multiple-choice questions, and understand possible lengthy responses to open-ended questions. The comfort of patients should be the main priority. They want to feel safe and secure, just as if they were talking to a human. The perception of undivided attention can go a long way toward the success of conversational AI adoption.
Empathy is something that patients desire when speaking with human representatives regarding their healthcare solutions. Companies may worry that by using conversational AI, this human, empathetic touch will be lost. However, when implemented and configured properly, these virtual AI assistants can help care providers to surpass patient expectations and improve patient outcomes.
During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, virtual AI assistants were utilized more than ever before. With this surge in conversational AI use, the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association saw a perfect opportunity to study the intelligence, authenticity, empathy, and support that conversational AI agents can provide to distressed patients. In their study, they found that virtual AI assistants in healthcare were most helpful when the solution's ability, patient compliance, integrity, and altruism matched that of a human agent.
#3. Incorporate contextual AI
Contextual AI allows the conversational AI application to understand the intentions of the patient or clinician who has initiated the conversation. Below are a couple of terms that illustrate how context can be a critical component in conversational AI discussions.
- Inpatient: Inpatient is often thought of as anyone staying in the hospital, but it stems much further. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) defines an inpatient as “anyone who stays OVER two midnights” to bill an account at that level. If not, those patients must be billed as outpatient or day surgery.
- Transfer: Just like the misconceptions that involve the definition of “inpatient,” a transfer can stretch far beyond just moving a patient from one facility to another. It can also refer to their level of care internally. When a patient moves from surgery to PACU, that is a LOC transfer. When they move from PACU to the unit, that is considered yet another transfer.
Context is also important for evaluating a patient’s medical needs. Often when patients contact 1-800 numbers associated with different aspects of the healthcare industry, they aren’t speaking with trained medical professionals who can assess the severity of their symptoms or diseases. Conversational AI agents, however, are pre-configured by trained professionals and can collect basic information from these patients and provide more information about their conditions and suggest potential next steps.
Many healthcare professionals see this as an opportunity to help patients decide when or where to receive care. Some people may be teetering on whether to even visit an ER or general physician, but conversing with a conversational AI agent may help them realize the severity of their symptoms or conditions and help them make a potentially life-saving decision.
Despite the helpfulness that conversational AI agents can provide to the healthcare industries, the benefits will come down to patient experience, which is why proper implementation is so important. One bad experience with a virtual AI assistant will instantly turn patients away from using AI solutions entirely.
It's critical that companies provide proper training to employees as well as configure conversational AI to be the best, most efficient solution possible.
It's also important to inform and possibly even train patients on the conversational AI solutions being used and explain how the tools can save them time and be influential in their care. Be respectful and understanding of patients that are fearful of using virtual AI assistants and offer other solutions to get them seen by providers and make them feel like the priority that they are. By providing patients with choices of how to receive care, confidence is boosted and loyalty to their provider becomes even stronger. For more information on what to expect regarding conversational AI and the healthcare industry, read more here.
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