The urgent need for chatbots in healthcare


Chatbots in healthcare have been steadily rising. They assist with appointment and medicine management. They can take symptoms and offer possible diagnoses, and they can support mental health workers. In short, chatbots ease the strain on healthcare workers.

But this strain is being massively exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, healthcare professionals (HCPs) need access to technological support. Which makes the need for chatbots in healthcare urgent, rather than a luxury or novelty.

So, how can chatbots assist healthcare professionals in the wake of the novel coronavirus?

Providing information

Chatbots in healthcare can act as a source of information for patients. Users can reach out to a chatbot with questions about their health and get immediate answers from a trustworthy source.

Currently, 5% of Google searches relate to health. And COVID-19 means the need for online healthcare advice is only set to grow. This is due to a combination of factors: self-isolation, heightened demand for remote healthcare advice, panic-induced symptom searching, and so on. The coronavirus itself may be the biggest trend in Google search history.

There is, then, a clear and pressing drive for internet-based healthcare advice.

•       Information in the pandemic

A problem that’s come alongside the COVID 19 pandemic is rampant misinformation. This issue is so bad, in fact, that the World Health Organisation has declared an ‘infodemic’. The overabundance of information is making it hard for people to discern fact from fiction.

Conspiracy theories and incorrect advice cover everything from the origin of the virus, to the current scale of the pandemic. Among this maelstrom, there are all sorts of false tips for preventing and even treating the virus.

This is concerning and stressful for those seeking coronavirus information. It’s also potentially harmful. Misinformation could increase the chance of infection if it advises against good practice. It can incite racism and fear, and it contributes to the strain on healthcare professionals.  

•       How chatbots in healthcare help

Chatbots in healthcare provide a space for people to ask their questions. Trained bots can answer FAQs about specific health conditions (including the novel coronavirus). They can tell users whether they should contact a pharmacist, doctor, or go to A&E.

Healthcare chatbots can help battle the coronavirus infodemic, too. They can even verify information, checking to see if a specific piece of information is known to be accurate. It’s easier to check that a chatbot comes from a reliable source than it is countless pieces of information.

Screening and advice

Beyond users asking chatbots questions, chatbots can ask users for information too. With this, chatbots in healthcare can help people get a preliminary diagnosis. That is, they can ask about symptoms and then offer possible diagnosis and advice on what to do next.

In this way, chatbots in healthcare can ease the strain placed on doctors and other healthcare professionals. They can advise patients on self-care, and so only those with a real need will make appointments to see a professional.

•       In a pandemic

People concerned that they might have the coronavirus face a feeling of uncertainty. There are no appointments for them — unless they need to go to the intensive care unit. They need to self-isolate, not potentially spread the virus to others at the doctor’s office.

Doctors, meanwhile, are exceedingly busy. And, with a finite number of appointments in a day, patients are struggling to access the help they need.

•       How chatbots in healthcare can help

In the wake of COVID-19, chatbots in healthcare provide a way for people to find out about their own health.

For a start, chatbots are providing coronavirus help. That is, they can help concerned users determine whether they may have the novel coronavirus, and so need to self-isolate from their family. They do this by asking users whether they have symptoms characteristic of the coronavirus. From their answers, they can generate an idea of whether the person is showing signs of infection.

From there, chatbots can offer specific advice about what to do next. This might be providing a number to call. They can answer questions about how to self-isolate. And, they can offer advice about what to expect and how to manage symptoms.

Plus, being in the midst of a pandemic doesn’t stop other illnesses from occurring. Chatbots in healthcare can help patients with other health concerns too. By asking what symptoms a person is suffering, they can offer advice to people that can’t get medical help due to lockdown. Chatbots can indicate when a person’s symptoms warrant risking a trip to the doctor’s office. (Or taking up a phone call appointment.)

Mental health

Another useful function for chatbots in healthcare revolves around mental health support. Mental health chatbots are not a new idea. In fact, the very first chatbot ran a program known as DOCTOR, posing as a psychotherapist, back in the 60s.

These days, mental health chatbots are emerging on a much bigger scale. For instance, we have chatbot ‘therapists’ like Woebot, Vivibot or Flow. They predominately assist people dealing with symptoms of anxiety or depression.

•       The problems from the pandemic

Once again, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an urgent need for chatbots in healthcare.

We’re experiencing a time of great anxiety. We are cut off from our families, and fearful of contracting the coronavirus. Human beings are social by nature, but we’re confined to our houses and must practice social distancing.

The result is a raised level of anxiety, of depressive symptoms and loneliness. While the situation bequeaths the necessity of social distancing measures, it doesn’t make it easy for anyone. And so, there is a greater need for mental healthcare services — and a greater strain on mental health professionals.

Plus, low mental health can sometimes lead to a decline in physical health. Which makes us more prone to illnesses.

•       How chatbots in healthcare can help

Chatbots are scalable. This means that whether five people need some help, or 500 people do, chatbots can answer every single one of them. And, they can do so no matter where the person in need is. (Provided there’s an internet connection.) So, patients can stay in their homes, and still get help.

This means that chatbots in healthcare can help to ease the strain on mental health services. They can provide some much-needed support at the click of a button.

Chatbots can provide a friendly ear, giving people a space to vent and engage in therapeutic small talk. With sentiment analysis, they can even respond to the mood of the user.

Beyond being something to talk to, chatbots can also support those struggling by offering advice or guidance. For example, they could suggest healthy coping mechanisms. Or, even things to do at home, to boost wellbeing without breaking lockdown.

Chatbots in healthcare: an urgent need

Chatbots can’t fight off COVID-19. But they have a valuable role to play in containing the disease and all the panic and misinformation that circles it.

Bots offer the healthcare sector vital resource alleviation. They ease the strain on doctors and provide accessibility to advice 24/7. Even, that is, during a lockdown of physical movement.

No longer are chatbots in healthcare a ‘nice to have’ or a novelty. Now, healthcare chatbots are an urgently needed support tool for patients and HCPs alike.

Useful links

The growing role of healthcare live chat

Chatbots: what are they good for?

The rise of mental health chatbots

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