‘But Will It Hurt?’ Empowering Patients With Empathetic, Intelligent Virtual Assistants

By Patty Riskind

Houston, we have a problem! Seventy-six percent of patients in the U.S. report that they do not leave their doctor’s office on a positive note. Reasons include disappointment with the level of Q&A they have with their doctor, confusion about their health, and their need to do more research after the appointment.

You’ve likely left an appointment with your doctor only to have questions pop into your mind on the way home. Perhaps you called back and spoke with a receptionist, hoping for your doctor to return your call, but instead the infuriating game of phone tag ensued. The reality is that most healthcare organizations struggle to effectively address patient concerns that impact the quality of care because many of these concerns often don’t occur in the moment of care.

With today’s focus on quality and consumerism, all segments of healthcare should be investing in digital solutions that empathetically address communication and process challenges. Automated phone menus and rudimentary chatbots (only capable of providing maddening yes-or-no answers) are being replaced by next-generation intelligent virtual assistants (IVA) that leverage natural language. These bots provide a more human-like experience that is personalized, immediately accessible, and empathetic—while also being secure and HIPAA compliant. Consider a few of the many ways IVAs allow patients to conveniently find, receive, and manage care.

Finding care: Empower patients to easily schedule, reschedule, or cancel appointments

88% of the time, a patient must call to schedule a doctor’s appointment instead of doing so digitally. Often this means getting lost in a phone tree of options, waiting on hold, or leaving messages that result in phone tag. Busy, anxious patients who need an appointment can come away with a negative first impression of the provider and the scheduling process.

An IVA can transform the experience and allow patients to schedule their appointment at their convenience using voice or digital tools. The IVA additionally provides peace of mind by being able to answer questions about the appointment in real time.

Here’s an example of scheduling a colonoscopy with an IVA:

  • A physician places an order in the electronic health record (EHR) for a patient to receive a colonoscopy
  • The order triggers the IVA to reach out to the patient via their preferred channel, such as email, text, or phone
  • This outreach provides the earliest available date and time for the procedure at a location that is closest to the patient’s home address using GPS search

Thanks to EHR integration, this experience is HIPAA compliant and personalized to each patient. Here’s an example of a conversational outreach an IVA might issue:

“Good morning, Jim. Your physician, Dr. James at Valley Health, has placed an order for you to have a colonoscopy. I would like to help you schedule this procedure. I have an appointment available on January 12th at 4:00 p.m. at Boston Seaport. Does this appointment work for you, or would you like to select another date and time?”

From this outreach, patients can engage in a human-like conversation with the IVA to confirm the appointment, reschedule if necessary, and ask questions. For example, immediately after confirming a date and time, the patient may ask, “Will it hurt?”—to which the IVA would reply:

“Good question, Jim! You may experience some stomach discomfort while you clear your bowels the night before, but you won’t experience pain during the procedure. You will, however, be groggy afterwards and will need someone to drive you home. I will send you detailed instructions for preparing for your colonoscopy in an email right now. Do you have any other questions?”

Receiving care: Keep patients engaged with round-the-clock outreach across multiple communication channels

Clinicians want to ensure that their patients receive personal, pertinent communication, whether it’s for an elective procedure that requires fasting the night before or a test result notification. IVAs help patients remain engaged while alleviating the administrative burden on staff, allowing clinicians to focus more on the critical tasks of delivering care.

For example, as of January 24, 2022, the U.S. had performed around 880 million tests for COVID-19. Delivering COVID-19 test results in a timely and effective manner became a huge burden for call center teams who were already overwhelmed. The patient experience with COVID-19 test results was often a delayed email with nothing but a negative or positive result, which left patients asking, “I tested positive—what do I do now?” or, “I tested negative, but I had exposure—should I test again?”

IVAs used by savvy healthcare organizations have automated communication of COVID-19 test results to thousands of patients and employees each day. The outreach fits patient preference, using text message, voice call, email, and chatbot, allowing for 75%–85% reach.

By reaching patients with test results in a timely fashion, the IVA reduces call center volume, enhances patient awareness and education, and alleviates the burden of patients showing up at emergency rooms or flooding their primary care physician’s office.

Managing care: Enhance postacute care to help patients manage their health

The examples above demonstrate how IVAs can support patients leading up to the moment of care, but what about after patients leave the doctor’s office? Remember, this is where 76% of patients have negative experiences.

IVAs can proactively engage patients after appointments, procedures, diagnoses, and test results to offer continued support. For example, five days after a patient receives their positive COVID-19 test results, the IVA sends an email asking the patient how they are feeling. Through this assessment, the IVA can collect subjective information to support the patient on the next best action:

IVA: “Hi, Jim. It has been five days since you tested positive for COVID-19. Dr. Smith would like to check in and see how you are feeling. Are you experiencing any symptoms?”

Patient: “Yes, I have a fever and think I might have shortness of breath.”

In response, the IVA can:

  • Deliver an assessment to find out how long the fever has persisted, when the shortness of breath began, and more
  • If symptoms are severe, recommend that Jim go to urgent care and be seen by a doctor as soon as possible
  • If symptoms are mild, suggest scheduling a telehealth visit with Dr. Smith within two to three days to ensure Jim is on the road to recovery

IVAs provide a human touch to not only empower patients, but ensure that providers don’t miss a beat in providing the highest-quality care. IVAs can help care teams provide comprehensive care 24/7 while lowering costs. Most importantly, IVAs contribute to meaningful patient engagement, increased safety, and positive outcomes that help patients feel more confident and satisfied with their healthcare.

Patty Riskind is the CEO of Orbita. The company’s conversational AI platform empowers healthcare providers to create secure, HIPAA-compliant, omnichannel, and multimodal solutions that engage patients and ​automate workflows.