Chatbots, also known as virtual assistants, are taking over the healthcare industry. According to Crunchbase News, by the end of 2019 investors had already poured more than US$800 million into health-chatbot startups.
These virtual assistants are able to diagnose ailments, raise awareness and answer queries about new medical devices and services, record stakeholder feedback and whistleblowing reports, provide reminders on health services and treatments, triage customer complaints and even provide emotional assistance. Snippets of empathy and kindness are sprinkled into conversations, while natural language processing, machine learning and other big-data algorithmic processes are employed behind the scenes.
As an example, a multitude of self-help therapies can now be guided by a diverse range of mobile apps, such as a ‘personal life coach’ that helps users think and feel better. These apps – which are often created by psychologists together with AI experts – analyse data to help users understand more about themselves, using well-known treatments as varied as cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, existential-humanistic psychology, psychodynamics and mindfulness, all with the aim of assisting in the self-help journey.
Virtual companions are on call 24/7, unlike human therapists, who need to schedule time for eating, sleeping, unexpected events and personal lives. Human therapists also come with their own value judgements, flawed human personalities and inconsistent communication skills. Chatbots do not have 'bad days' – although they may claim so in order to generate connections with their users!
Addiction, anxiety, cancer, colds, COVID-19, depression, diabetes and sleeping disorders are just a few of the many conditions for which chatbots are now employed to assist in first-line diagnoses, therapy and/or management, both in patient interactions and physician consultations. Medical imaging and diagnostics as well as AI-driven drug discoveries (identifying potential molecules out of millions of possibilities) may also be aided by using chatbot-derived data.
At the other end of the healthcare cycle, 24/7 health hotlines deal specifically with reporting and whistleblowing. The reports can range from defective medicines and adverse reactions to medical devices to illegal practices in medicine. These often anonymous hotlines assist in improving product and service deliveries as well as uncovering corrupt and/or illegal practices. Compliance protocols programmed into hotlines are free from human error or capriciousness, helping callers to feel more at ease when making reports. And the data from hotline reports can be reliably stored and encrypted for follow-up remedial work and research.
Reporting and whistleblowing hotlines facilitate the healthcare industry to achieve best practices in healthcare and improve industry standards. The proverb ‘health is wealth’ is steeped in truth and has survived the ages.
Who needs an empathetic, non-judgemental, multilingual, 100% protocol compliant chatbot with total recall who can gently guide, remind and help us to help ourselves in all aspects of healthcare? Probably every one of us!