Health Technology

Conversational AI for Healthcare: What do Doctors and Patients Think?

Perception of telehealth and conversational AI has changed significantly over the past couple of years; especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conversational AI has been used in many different areas to simulate human interaction and make mundane tasks more manageable. We typically think of them in the context of marketing and commerce, where they help answer questions, solve problems, and guide customers through their buying decisions. But they're also making a big mark on healthcare. 

Conversational AI for healthcare is used to provide personalized medical information to patients, suggest relevant products and services, and sometimes even to indicate diagnoses or potential treatments based on patient-reported symptoms. These intelligent “health bots” are also able to connect patients to well-suited health care providers near them. 

Theoretically speaking, conversational AI could serve as a better option to guide patients because they pose no bias regarding gender, age, race, or patient demographics. The AI agents work around the clock, never tire, or become ill, as a human team member might. By operating 24 hours a day, they can assist patients who may have medical questions or concerns outside of typical office hours. Conversational AI-enabled tools can communicate in multiple languages to help other non-native-speaking patients as well. 

What Do Physicians Really Think of Conversational AI?

In a survey conducted by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, practicing physicians were asked to rate the importance of conversational AI in the healthcare field:

  • 42% of physicians believed that bots are either very important or somewhat influential in healthcare.
  • 44% of physicians stated that they would be very likely or somewhat likely to recommend using intelligent healthcare bots to their patients within the next five years.
  • A total of 40% of physicians also specified that they would be very likely or somewhat likely to suggest the adoption of healthcare bots to their medical colleagues.

Regarding health-related results for patients’ use of bots, about 45% of physicians believed that there was some type of physical, psychological, or behavioral health benefits:

  • Over half of physicians believed that conversational AI bots could help patients improve their diet or nutrition.
  • 60% believed that bots could enhance medication or treatment obedience.
  • 55% thought they could increase activity or exercises.
  • 51% thought they could play a role in reducing stress. 

Regarding the logistical benefits of conversational AI in healthcare, 62% of the physicians surveyed believed in advantages for the organization, planning, and management of administrative characteristics associated with healthcare. Most notably, 78% of these physicians thought that conversational AI would be most beneficial for scheduling doctor appointments, locating health clinics or providers in a specific area, administering reminders for medication or treatment compliance, providing medication use or misuse instructions, or answering medication frequently asked questions.

How Do Patients Perceive Conversational AI?

Over the years, plenty of research has been conducted regarding the benefits of using healthcare bots, and how they help with diagnoses, offer support, increase physical activity, and promote cognitive and behavioral therapies. Compare that to a human physician: Patients often feel that interacting with AI bots is safer and more comfortable than speaking with human healthcare providers. Patients will usually disclose more information regarding their health or report more symptoms to bots than they disclose to their own physicians.

In the same survey conducted by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, patients were asked about their personal experiences with conversational AI. 30% of patients specified that they had direct personal experience with the use of conversational bots for health-related issues. Of the 30 participants who have previously used healthcare bots, 13% were delighted, 33% were somewhat satisfied, 27% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, and 27% were slightly unhappy with their application. 

The Pandemic Drove Wider Acceptance of Conversational AI-Enabled Healthcare

Perceptions of conversational AI significantly improved during the height of the 2020 covid-19 pandemic. They were proving that they could be significant assets to healthcare providers. Bots were helping screen patients for coronavirus tests when physicians' resources were constrained, helping to divert patients from going to overcrowded emergency rooms or urgent care centers.

AI-powered Bots screened for prevalent symptoms like having a persistent fever and loss of smell, among other things—organizations like the Utah poison control center designated a conversational AI-powered system to handle coronavirus queries. The goal of implementing these virtual agents is not to replace doctors, but to assist them and their patients. The goal is to help patients stop searching the internet, feeling scared, and not knowing what to do. 

As those survey results show, both physicians and patients are coming to believe in bots and their ability to positively impact the healthcare experience. Overall, physicians thought conversational AI could be most beneficial in the areas of nutrition, diet, and treatment adherence, along with tedious, logistical tasks such as scheduling appointments, locating clinics near a patient, and providing notifications for medications.

AI Brings New Opportunities and Capabilities

Another factor driving greater enthusiasm for healthcare bots is the evolution of the technology itself. Thanks to conversational AI, today's bots are much more robust. Physicians once had to worry about whether bots could adequately meet patient needs, particularly when it comes to connecting with patients. Natural language processing (NLP) means that today's bots are capable of sentiment analysis, so they can better detect a patient's emotions and respond with empathy. 

NLP also allows AI-powered bots to better understand when patients talk about their symptoms using more casual or simple language than a physician or other medical professional might choose. Over time, these bots are capable of increasingly sophisticated, natural interactions, and they can address more complex inquiries. 

The key to adopting healthcare bots is to consistently prioritize the patient experience.  Conversational AI should never replace physicians--they should supplement them in ways that benefit patients and ensure they still receive excellent care. Say that one evening, a patient seeks and receives a simple diagnosis through a bot. The bot might also prompt the patient to provide contact information so that a healthcare provider can follow up the next day. This process means that the patient gets timely information via the conversational agent--but also still gets that "human touch" that's so indispensable in healthcare. Think through the entire lifecycle of each patient interaction, not just through the end of the patient's conversation with the AI bot. 

Implementing conversational AI is a cost-effective way for physicians to extend their capacity for patient care and streamline administrative tasks. As technology evolves, patients and physicians will undoubtedly continue to approach the technology with more enthusiasm. 

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