Using Chatbots to Ease the Burden on Medical Professionals

Telemedicine is far from a new concept, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated its adoption by the healthcare sector. Amidst surging demand for virtual care, chatbots are helping to ease the burden on medical professionals.

By Adi Gaskell
July 28, 2020

Telemedicine is far from a new concept, but the adoption of it by the healthcare sector has historically been lukewarm. This has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing so many medical consultations to be conducted virtually in order to maintain social distancing and slow the spread of the virus.

The technologies involved in telemedicine have largely been able to support this due to developments that have made platforms more secure, able to provide higher quality videos and images, and broadband connectivity that makes such consultations comparable to a face-to-face visit.

Indeed, recent data from consultancy firm Accenture found that patients who have accessed care via telehealth platforms are very happy with the standard of care received. Their survey of 2,700 patients around the world found that 60 percent of those using telehealth platforms would wish to continue receiving care via these platforms in future, even though nearly three-quarters of patients were using telehealth for the first time during the pandemic.

“Along with the move to virtual forms of care and communication came a sense of greater satisfaction with the care provided,” Accenture says. “Many patients said they felt care was more personal, more convenient, and timelier."

Shortage of staff

While the acceptance of telehealth has been good among the general public, the elephant in the room remains the ability of healthcare providers to adequately staff services to cope with consistently rising demand. The World Health Organization’s Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health: Workforce 2030 report predicts a shortage of 18 million health workers globally, including nearly 10 million physicians, nurses, and midwives by 2030.

This is especially problematic in Europe, where significant inequalities exist between regions. The report highlights that in some parts of Europe there are five times more doctors than in other parts, with the situation with nurses even worse, with some areas having nine times as many nurses as others.

New research from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business suggests that chatbot technology can play a major role in plugging this skills gap. The study found that chatbots can significantly ease the burden on healthcare providers by providing reliable and trusted guidance to patients regarding their symptoms.

The chatbot will see you now

The researchers enrolled several hundred volunteers to view a screening session for COVID-19 between an online agent and a patient presenting with mild or severe symptoms of the virus. Half of the volunteers viewed a session whereby the agent was a chatbot, and half where the agent was a human. The aim was to test whether the chatbot was viewed as providing reliable information and was sufficiently persuasive to ensure the patient followed the correct course of action.

The results showed a very slight negative bias against the chatbots in terms of their ability, with the researchers hypothesizing that this was due to press coverage clouding the opinion of the participants. When the perceived ability was the same, however, the volunteers tended to view the chatbots more positively than they did the human agents.

"The primary factor driving user response to screening hotlines—human or chatbot—is perceptions of the agent's ability," the researchers explain. "When ability is the same, users view chatbots no differently or more positively than human agents."

Growing acceptance

Even prior to the pandemic, there has been a growing acceptance of chatbots as a means of engaging with patients, with platforms such as Babylon making use of chatbots to triage patients. The scalable nature of the technology makes it ideal for use in coping with the kind of surges in demand we’ve seen during the pandemic. Chatbots are available to operate around the clock and therefore provide a low-cost—yet highly effective—way of delivering information to patients.

What’s more, previous research into the use of chatbots in a therapy setting showed that patients are often more willing to disclose sensitive information to an artificial agent than they would be to a human being who they worry might judge them in some way. This is a particular worry during COVID-19, as numerous health bodies have highlighted the potential for stigma to become attached to those who are identified as having the virus and, indeed, even those who may have been in contact with those who have it.

The researchers believe that for chatbots to be effective, it’s vital that not only do patients have trust in the healthcare provider themselves but also in the reliability of the chatbot technology. As such, they recommend providers be proactive in informing users of the reliability of the chatbot so that patients are aware that they’re using the same up-to-date knowledge as human agents. It’s a confidence that the Accenture data suggests is gradually growing.

“The pandemic has shifted patient attitudes and expectations as they have embraced new digital tools. What we are seeing and hearing is that virtual care is here to stay,” they say.

Just as telehealth technologies appear likely to endure after the pandemic, this presents a clear opportunity for chatbot technologies to be similarly enduring.