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How Medical Chatbots Are Changing Healthcare

Ten years ago, it never would’ve crossed our minds that saying “Alexa,” would open up endless command possibilities, all carried out by a talking speaker at our bidding. Whether it’s changing the song on a playlist, ordering takeout, or adding a reminder to tomorrow’s calendar, the use of artificial intelligence is changing the way we live on a day to day basis. Most people would probably agree that using computerized gadgets have simplified their lives, despite some hiccups here and there.

The bulk of individuals who use artificial intelligence do so in the name of convenience or luxury, opting to have a device turn on their lights at night or help to keep a family’s activities organized. Yet, as AI advances with each day, there are some new and interesting applications for the technology. Some major metropolitan areas in the U.S. are even offering an option to receive medical care via computer.

The method of looking up your symptoms and self-diagnosing isn’t very reliable, so the majority of us schedule an appointment and see our physician for professional input. Even with the implementation of urgent care centers around the country, the method of seeking care is the same—get in your car and head to the doctor’s office. Now that AI is entering the healthcare landscape, patients may be able to receive medical services through a chatbot instead.

 

What Is A Medical Chatbot?

At first glance, people may scoff at the term chatbot, as it brings to mind frustrating interactions with customer service departments or cold, uninviting experiences over the phone. However, as hospitals and doctor’s offices utilize this software more and more, one’s experience may, in fact, tend to mirror a conversation with an actual person.

A medical chatbot is, simply put, a program that’s designed to interact with a patient through text, interpreting one’s needs as the conversation progresses. It can potentially diagnose medical conditions or assist with medical advice, depending on how sophisticated the chatbot is. Although, doing so with regular accuracy is still on the horizon for most industry leaders. Experts note that chatbots should theoretically “get smarter” after every conversation, thus proving that this concept is more like true artificial intelligence, rather than a preset collection of answers.

Tech-inclined individuals are the ideal candidates for medical chatbot use, however, there’s no reason it can’t see usage by other demographics, too. In fact, many people probably do already without knowing it.

 

Looking At Texts

Many of us are already engaging with text-based forms of AI and have been for years. Every time you receive a text reminder from your physician’s office, whether it’s about an upcoming appointment or a balance on your account, you’re interacting with a chatbot. These versions aren’t necessarily designed to hold a back and forth conversation, but they still collect data and offer a more streamlined method of communication between you and your provider’s office.

One of the more common trends in medical chatbot implementation is within the mental healthcare space, as online “therapists” are often an option during times outside of office hours. A range of companies offer the ability to talk with someone about your troubles and receive helpful advice in return. One such organization, Woebot, even conducted a study to explore just how helpful their medical chatbot services were for a range of participants. In the end, they found that cognitive behavioral therapy was not only correctly administered but actually offered value within their test group.
Even if you aren’t a fan of texting with a computer, you still might be engaging with a medical chatbot without knowing it. A quick online search for AI use through Facebook Messenger brings up a shocking number of results, leading the general public to believe that questions relating to office hours and payment options aren’t even answered by a real human anymore.

 

Using AI To Pave The Way

Early adopters of new technology are no doubt thrilled at the concept of using medical chatbots to help with health concerns. Not everyone will so easily be sold on the idea, though. However, exploring some of the pros to this use of technology does shine a light on the potential that AI could offer in the healthcare realm:

  • Convenience: A medical chatbot can save a patient tons of time in their day. Rather than having to leave work early, sit in traffic, and then sit even longer in a waiting room, their medical concerns can theoretically be addressed from the comfort of their home or office.
  • Comfort: Not everyone is lucky enough to have a great relationship with their physician, and some even experience white coat syndrome, an increase in blood pressure due to the stress of simply being in a doctor’s office. Individuals with limited mobility can also benefit from not having to see a physician face to face, as simply arranging to get to their doctor’s office can bring on stress.
  • Peace of mind: How many times have you woken up in the middle of the night with a weird pain or unusual symptoms on a weekend morning? It’s likely happened to everyone at least once, and it can be difficult waiting it out until your physician’s office opens. Instead, using a medical chatbot can help you to get answers sooner, offering much-needed peace of mind.

 

Helping Or Harming?

Like with most types of new technology, medical chatbots have endured a fair amount of criticism as well. Technically, the very first chatbot was created at MIT in the late 1960s, but it was really the introduction of Siri in 2011 that kicked things off. Translating this technology into the healthcare space hasn’t been easy, and many still have concerns including:

  • Security: Healthcare data is one of the most important pieces of your personal information that should be safeguarded, and thankfully, HIPAA rules and regulations cover most of those bases. However, it seems that not all medical chatbots are compliant with these guidelines. This buyer’s guide points out that HIPAA integration is a bonus, leading one to believe that not all bots are. Therefore, anything you say to a bot may not be secure.
  • Effectiveness: We’re a long way from computers completely taking over the healthcare industry and putting doctors out of a job. Some medical chatbots are likely pretty sophisticated, but making a cancer diagnosis or assisting with an emergency via text isn’t a reality quite yet. Until the technology has been around longer, it’s probably best to stick to non-critical issues when engaging with a bot.
  • Relationships: Today’s world tends to rely on technology so much that it creates a lack of actual human interaction. The use of medical chatbots will only further this trend, unfortunately. It’s already difficult to find a family physician who has seen the same patient for the last 50 years, and if we stop visiting our doctor in person altogether, there’s no telling what will happen to the face-to-face relationships that could’ve been cultivated.

 

Would You Trust A Chatbot?

A recent survey by IEEE, the globe’s largest technical profession group, inquired about people’s readiness to adopt AI into healthcare. Roughly 56% of respondents said they would let a chatbot diagnose their children. That might sound like far too high of a percentage, given the circumstances. Others, though, may feel that figure is too low for how far AI has advanced in recent years. The perspective can shift depending on the demographic: Nearly 80% of those living in Asia would use a chatbot, while the United Kingdom brought in the most amount of concern, with only 48% noting they trust the technology.

The future of medical chatbots is bright. Industry experts are describing it as a potential “turning point” in the healthcare world, which is hopeful for people of all demographics. Yet, as promising as the technology may seem, there are still quite a few bugs to work out when it comes to real-world applications. Accuracy is essential, and the ability to replace someone holding an advanced-degree with a pre-programmed piece of software still seems like a lofty idea.

As artificial intelligence continues to permeate nearly every facet of our daily life, it’s wise to take time and consider the ways you would use a medical chatbot. How could they help with scheduling your appointments, or even diagnosing an unexpected weekend sickness? If you’re not used to it yet, you may want to warm up to the idea, because drastic change is coming to industry—and AI implementation is at the forefront.

 

About Slingshot Health

Slingshot Health is a health tech startup that brings top healthcare providers and patients together. Patients bid on the cost of services and healthcare providers accept bids based on availability. Slingshot Health is unique in that it is a mutual marketplace putting both patients and providers back in control. Visit us at slingshothealth.com.