7 Things You Need to Know About Chatbots

How do patients and consumers view chatbots in healthcare? Friend or foe? Here are seven things they’ve told us on our online communities.

Rebecca Jane Miller

Former Associate Consultant at C Space

It’s hard to find any brand or service these days that’s not turning to a chatbot to connect and forge better relationships with its customers. The charm lies in a brand’s ability to communicate with a customer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, throwing long waiting times into the bin of history. Domino’s has already launched a bot for ordering pizza through Facebook messenger, and National Geographic Kids has a Tina the T Rex chatbot which allows children to talk to a real (sort of) dinosaur!

In the health space, bots such as Babylon, which provides a ‘triage service’ to patients looking for advice, are already starting to make way, but what might be a dream for pizza lovers might not be all that helpful for patients. Using chatbots to replace the expertise and human interaction of a doctor or nurse is not the same as replacing the human interaction of receiving a pizza at the front door.

The topic of chatbots has been bubbling up in C Space Health’s online communities quite a bit. Here are a few of the hopes and fears raised by the communities’ patients and consumers, and an indication of how bots could be used.

My first port of call

Often, a customer just wants to see a doctor somewhere convenient at a time that works, and sometimes a long call-centre queue can slow things down and frustrate people. A bot, on the other hand, can quickly identify who you need to speak to, where and when, making the appointment booking process that bit smoother and more pleasant.

“A real person can try and get the necessary information from you and work with you to see what the issue is and how it can be resolved and not work off a script like a Chatbot would do. Chatbots definitely have an appeal though and could be used in numerous ways, such as the initial screening for forwarding on to trained personnel, booking specialists/consultation, general FAQ’s” – Community Member

My personal account manager – it never forgets

Perhaps a customer enquired about physio or another service; perhaps a customer needed to make another appointment in a month’s time but just couldn’t remember when that wedding was. Bots always remember and could ensure that customers get all the care by having everything about an individual customer to hand. Patients wouldn’t need to retell their entire life story every time they jump on the phone.

“I have seen it in action for work and it is amazing, it never forgets anything, it is able to link 50,000 things instantly and it actually learns and continues to build its knowledge. I believe it may replace GPs and Specialists in the future because of its ability to put together a range of ideas far more than a human can remember and given the current issues of seeing a GP, if I had a Chatbot I could access via iPad as soon as I needed to I would be more than happy to do this.” – Community Member

A motivational wellness chatbot that looks out for me

The beauty of a bot is that it can message whenever and wherever. NHS England has already found great success in helping users of their bot quit smoking with daily reminders and check ins. Community members have recognised that this kind of bot could be very helpful in reminding patients to take their medication on time, go for a run or simply ask if they have eaten enough fruit and veg today.

“I think a wellness bot would be great, always there for motivation and would be easy to access – and a bit more private – e.g., do not have to talk loud on the phone – so I could do it on the tube!”  – Community Member

My bot doesn’t judge

“I’ve got scurvy again. S-C-U-R-V-Y. Yes. That’s what I said. Scurvy… I said scurvy!!”

Some problems can be just that little bit too embarrassing to speak out loud. People recognise that talking to a chatbot could be a more preferable mode of communication for more sensitive problems.

“This isn’t something I’ve come across before but I’d imagine a chatbot to be very focused in the information it was able to provide, allowing more accurate and quicker analysis of a problem, in a non-threatening environment, which would overcome the occasional difficulty of addressing embarrassing symptoms with a medical professional.” – Community Member

My bot checks in on me

Chatbots could not only ensure that customers get that vital post-appointment follow up but also gather significant data in an easy to manage format. Chatbots could look to engage with customers at a time suitable for them and ensure that all is well following a consultation and that they are following the consultant’s recommendations in a friendly and less intrusive manner.

A bot needs to be clever and prove itself to me

While the majority of people are open to the idea of a chatbot for a lot of ‘admin-based’ tasks, there remains a number who just can’t see the difference between a bot and a website. In order to get these individuals on board, the bot’s AI would have to be extremely developed to prove its value.

“I wouldn’t use a Chatbot- because I don’t believe that it has any information that I couldn’t find myself. If I need healthcare- I want to speak to a professional with more experience, knowledge and training than I have. If a healthcare company tried to make me use a Chatbot rather than allowing me to speak to a professional, I would feel insulted and ripped off.” – Community Member

My bot is great but sometimes I just need a human

While people are open to the idea of a chatbot, a large number feel that some issues are just too serious to speak to a bot about. Bedside manner and the empathy shown by another human being remain important, and in some instances a bot just doesn’t cut it.

“I like to have that direct contact with someone who can try and understand my concerns or my health issues from an empathic perspective which I don’t think a Chatbot would be able to do!” – Community Member

“If I had a Chatbot I could access via iPad as soon as I needed to I would be more than happy to do this. However I do not think that a chat bot will ever replace human interaction in therapy or counselling as seeing a physical person right in front of you is a big part of helping you talk through change.” – Community Member

When it comes to a person’s health, things become a bit more complicated than transactional services like buying and selling. Maintaining human interaction is still obviously a desire, but according to the patients and consumers we’ve spoken to, AI-powered bots can certainly take away some of the stresses of getting their healthcare organised.

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