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The rise of conversational bots in healthcare

three cartoon healthcare chatbots wearing a medical symbol standing in a row

Imagine you have a follow-up question regarding a recent visit to your doctor. You’re given a choice: Speak with a healthcare professional by phone, or exchange texts with a fully automated chatbot.

As it turns out, patients are increasingly interested in doing the latter. According to research firm Statista, 27 percent of consumers would rather answer sensitive health questions posed by virtual assistants than by people. What’s more, Juniper Research reports interactions with healthcare chatbots driven by artificial intelligence (AI) are expected to surpass 2.8 billion per year by 2023.

This emerging customer preference bodes well for hospitals, physician offices, medical specialists, health insurance firms and other healthcare companies keen on exploring the AI trend.

With this in mind, here’s a closer look at why we’re sure to see conversational bots at the forefront of healthcare investment strategies in the months ahead.

Consumers gain convenience and accessibility

According to the Pew Research Center, more than three-quarters of consumers go online daily, while 26 percent report being online “almost constantly.” These numbers are even higher among mobile internet users, 89 percent of whom go online daily and 31 percent of whom are online almost all the time.

For healthcare companies aiming to build and maintain relationships with their customers, they have to meet consumers where they are. Chatbots are a convenient way for patients to get answers to questions about their healthcare accounts, coverage, claims and even minor health concerns, via their mobile devices and desktops.

Along with websites and mobile apps, chatbots, “…allow people to get information and make contact with organizations based on their own timeline and schedule, so the info is available when the consumer needs it,” says Christine Holt, chief experience officer for Pennsylvania-based healthcare provider Holy Redeemer Health System.

“Healthcare is a 24/7 business, but not all aspects of healthcare are designed to be available to consumers all the time — so apps allow healthcare companies to extend their hours of service to their customers,” she says.

Holt, whose job is focused on facilitating and improving the patient experience, notes, however, that chatbots aren’t right for every healthcare situation. “Healthcare is a pretty intimate business, and human agents can support people through personal circumstances and at times when the test results being delivered may not have positive ramifications,” she says.

Still, she believes that when it comes to the simpler customer interactions, the always-on accessibility of this technology can’t be beat.

Companies can improve productivity and cost savings

Artificial intelligence is a focal point for virtually all industries, but for healthcare in particular, companies are ramping up their offerings. AI has the capacity to find certain correlations between data sets on a much larger scale than humans can, and that ability can have meaningful, positive impacts for customers and patients.

In its Digital Health: Disruptor Analysis, Country Readiness & Technology Forecasts 2018–2023 report, Juniper Research notes that AI-powered chatbots are expected to save medical staff members time while also saving companies money. In fact, it could save healthcare systems in countries worldwide about $3.7 billion by 2023.

According to Michael Larner, an associate market analyst with Juniper Research and author of the report, chatbots ultimately free up agents so that healthcare companies can deliver more human-scale customer service. He points to their role in eliminating long queues that require patients to wait for their turn with a representative, and value when it comes to alleviating stress and pressure on human agents.

“Another benefit for companies is that the chatbot will deliver a consistent service level throughout the day,” Larner explains. “It doesn’t suffer from tiredness or make administrative errors.” Because AI-powered chatbots learn as they go, Larner adds, a company can “improve its service levels going forward.”

You can bet these perks have a tangible impact on healthcare costs. According to some industry analysts, healthcare conversational bots could result in an average time savings of more than four minutes per inquiry, which amounts to a cost savings of between 50 to 70 cents per interaction. The more sophisticated the technology, the more effective these tools are at addressing customer queries. That in turn increases consumers comfort and satisfaction with conversational bots.

Quick tips for conversational bot success

Larner has several recommendations for healthcare companies looking to maximize the value of their chatbots:

  • Test and optimize the service on a regular basis
  • Ensure the content generated by the bot is transferred to the organization’s patient record system so it’s accessible to doctors
  • Explore the possibility of a voice-based interface that can tie into virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa

“Voice will increasingly be a way for users to engage with technology, especially the elderly, who are less able physically to use smartphones or computer keyboards,” Larner says.

With consumers already embracing conversational bots in other aspects of their lives, healthcare companies should start thinking of this technology as a key component of the overall patient experience. Healthcare organizations are already committed to providing individualized care, and with the support of this technology, they can drive further improvements in their customer experience.

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