“Alexa, What’s Wrong With Me?”

How Chatbots Are Changing Healthcare

By Sachin KalraInfostretch

If proof were needed that digital and virtual technologies are transforming healthcare, then Amazon’s recent activities are surely a clear signal. From partnering with six healthcare organizations to develop Amazon Alexa skills that handle patient information, to launching AmazonCare, Amazon is accelerating what is widely seen as its move into the digital healthcare market. While it is not (quite) possible to ask Alexa for medical advice, chatbots are nevertheless on the rise in healthcare. Advances in technologies like natural language programming and machine learning, together with a profusion of smart devices and improving internet connectivity, have paved the way for healthcare chatbots to go beyond trials and proofs of concept. An acute pressure to optimize costs has further catalyzed adoption.

Chatbot uptake is rising rapidly. It is one of the fastest-growing segments in healthcare, with the market expected to be worth more than $314 million by 2023. As chatbots gain broader acceptance, the initial distrust surrounding them has ebbed. Polls repeatedly demonstrate that people want the benefits that come with automated help within healthcare. These include faster access to medical care, quicker prescriptions, and more help navigating medicines and hospitals.

Of the hundreds of chatbots available today, there are three main application types driving growth:

  • Scheduling applications: Task-oriented chatbots can schedule appointments with the doctor or other primary care provider, then arrange further appointments with specialists if required. Innovators in this space include VirtualSpirits, TARS, and MD.
  • Navigators for websites, procedures, medicines, and hospitals: Chatbots operating within closed-domain or domain-specific tasks for scenarios can be great guides for navigating a particular clinical location or website. Babylon Health, Buoy Health, and Sensely are all examples.
  • Tracking tools: More chatbots are serving as reminder or tracking tools—for example, to help ensure patients take the right medication at the right intervals. This technology is similar to the skill sets used in familiar devices such as activity monitoring watches (like Fitbit) or voice assistants (like Alexa, or Apple’s Siri). Examples include Florence, Forksy, and HealthTap.

With increasing cost pressure for healthcare to digitally transform, and the near ubiquity of platforms such as Facebook Messenger or WeChat, it is no surprise that healthcare chatbots are on the rise. Their potential is virtually endless, limited only by the imagination and needs of physicians and their patients. Currently, the number one growth driver emerging for healthcare chatbots, expected to hold the largest share of the market over the next decade, is the area known as medical triage.

Triage services cover a wide range of uses, but broadly speaking, they act as assistants to ensure patients get appropriate access to care. They encompass the scheduling and tracking apps that are beginning to take hold, and they will increasingly help patients manage and monitor their own health—whether getting them urgent attention for an acute illness or motivating them to continue with a course of treatment or lifestyle change.

Another major driver for chatbot adoption is cost efficiency. Resources are stretched, and chatbots can replace many human conversations with a healthcare firm. We are already seeing chatbots help navigate patients through the healthcare system or through a hospital, and in the future, they may be able to handle more complex interactions such as delivering crucial medical information and explaining procedures.

Chatbot adoption is not just for interactions between patients and healthcare firms. A growing number of applications are assisting doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals in staying up to date with the latest medicines and procedures. One example is SafeDrugBot, a chatbot developed in response to the need for medical professionals to quickly and accurately advise mothers on what drugs can safely be taken while breastfeeding.

In the last few years, virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Home have become pervasive in our daily routines. Many of us do not think twice before asking them to provide information on any number of topics, from the weather to information about local businesses. As the healthcare industry continues to embrace chatbots, soon these assistants will be able to provide medical advice, carry out administrative tasks, and even speak directly with our doctors. And given the rate at which this technology is evolving, who knows how long before Alexa will be able to diagnose our symptoms?

Sachin Kalra is vice president of customer success at Infostretch, a digital engineering services company based in Santa Clara, California. He has experience across a broad range of corporate operations, including strategy planning, marketing, finance, and general management.