AI technology is changing the healthcare industry, and the latest addition – chatbots – has the potential to save clinics and hospitals thousands of dollars.
Healthcare-specific chatbots certainly have the potential to revolutionize the patient experience in particular.
But developing, maintaining and implementing an AI chatbot does come with its own costs and challenges.
So the real question for clinics, hospitals and other private practices looking to improve the patient experience with AI chatbots is this: Is it worth it?
Will chatbots really make a difference for your staff and patients?
Here are a few considerations for healthcare providers who might be considering adding AI chatbots to their practice.
What Are Healthcare Chatbots?
Healthcare chatbots are designed to be virtual assistants.
They use Artificial Intelligence to automatically gather information from the Internet (or any information database) to predict, analyze and answer questions.
Many businesses use AI chatbots for customer service tasks. On the more “inventive” side of AI, you have chatbots like Amazon’s Mona, which acts as a personal shopper for Amazon customers.
But chatbots can also help healthcare providers with customer service, assisting with tasks like taking patient information, answering medical questions, and booking appointments.
They can also be used to help doctors look up medication information, order supplies, write prescriptions and other practitioner-specific administrative tasks. Or they can simply be used for advice.
Eliza, for example, is a rudimentary chatbot that was originally developed to simulate a psychotherapist. Patients or health professionals could use Eliza’s basic programming to ask a variety of healthcare questions.
While Eliza’s programming is rather simple, there are also a variety of more robust healthcare chatbots out there on the market designed to help healthcare professionals.
HealthTap, for instance, allows patients to learn more about their health by asking questions, check symptoms or conditions, and find relevant specialists if they need it.
Florence is another example of a healthcare chatbot that acts more like a personal assistant. It can remind patients to take their medication, help them stay motivated to stick to their schedules, and provide other relevant medical information.
These chatbots, and others like them, are designed to be conversational, as if you were live chatting with a doctor or nurse rather than typing questions into a search engine.
They are also designed to be more responsive and personal than search engines.
Instead of requiring the patient to browse through articles (and guess their own diagnosis), chatbots can pull more specific or relevant information and then schedule an appointment for them.
While they’re not completely comprehensive (a chatbot won’t replace a human medical professional’s expertise), they can improve the patient experience and make it easier for clinic staff to perform their jobs.
The Benefits of Using a Healthcare Chatbot
One of the biggest benefits that chatbots can offer healthcare professionals and patients is cost savings.
According to Juniper Research, chatbots could save organizations up to $8 billion annually by 2022, a figure that was predicted to be at $20 million just a year ago.
One Juniper Research analyst, Lauren Foye, says of the prediction, “We believe that healthcare providers using bots can expect average time savings of just over four minutes per inquiry, equating to average cost savings in the range of $0.50-$0.70 per interaction.”
They can be used to streamline admissions, create discharge or transfer requests, schedule patients, send and receive referrals and quickly retrieve pertinent patient information from EMR/EHR files.
Patient history, training materials and other notes can also be sent to relevant parties to create treatment plans or keep patients on track with their health goals.
While the reduction in staff burden may be a benefit enough, there’s also more that chatbots could potentially help with.
1. Chatbots can improve at-home care
Aside from looking up symptoms and scheduling appointments, in-home caregivers could also use chatbots for post-discharge care. “Virtual nurses” (like Florence) could help patients take their medications and connect with their primary care physicians.
2. Chatbots can handle other types of followup medical care
Quality is a big factor for the patient experience, and oftentimes doctors and practitioners find it difficult to give quality care once a patient leaves the office. Chatbots could be a great way to improve follow-up care by prompting patients to record their symptoms or track their progress.
3. Chatbots can gather and compare drug information
Doctors could use a chatbot to quickly compare medications or drug options, look up herbal remedies or research other medical references as needed. This can help them reduce research time in the office so they can focus on the patient experience.
4. Chatbots can provide a personalized experience
A search engine doesn’t know a patient’s name or medical history, so when they search for symptoms, they’re left to sift through articles (with mixed results). A chatbot, on the other hand, could pull information from a patient’s last appointment and cross-reference it with current symptoms for a more personalized experience.
5. Chatbots are more secure than a search engine
Most chatbots are built with security protocols and requirements, making them a great HIPAA-compliant option for both patients and healthcare providers. This enables doctors to provide care to patients without micromanaging care or worrying about HIPAA violations.
But are all these benefits too good to be true?
One of the biggest reasons chatbots have not been more utilized has been the associated cost to build or buy them as well as training patients and staff to use them.
Should You Build or Buy a Healthcare Chatbot?
When it comes to actually implementing chatbots in your practice, there are a few approaches you can take (with varying costs and time commitments):
- Hire a developer to build your own chatbot
- Use a bot-as-a-service to build a custom chatbot
- Use a pre-made chatbot (like HealthTap or Florence, etc.)
With the first option, you have cost considerations for finding and hiring a developer who can build you the appropriate chatbot.
Depending on your budget and the developer you find, this could potentially cost you thousands of dollars. The average app developer chargers $6,453 for a single project.
You could always go with the alternative, however, which is to use a bot-as-a-service company, like Avaamo, to build a custom chatbot.
While this is certainly an easier route (you get a custom chatbot without having to search for or hire a developer), there is still a cost involved.
The third option is to utilize a chatbot that’s already developed and integrate it with your current technology. This may be the most cost-effective and time-saving solution, but there are other considerations that may make you hesitant.
Is the pre-made chatbot what you need? Will patients know how to use it? Will it work with your current technology? Is the cost still within your budget?
For many of the options, the question becomes, “Is there enough of a benefit to justify the costs?”
Unfortunately, there’s not a clear-cut answer. Chatbots have the potential to save hundreds of hours on administrative tasks as well as improve the patient experience, both in the office and out.
Healthcare administrators and practitioners considering the use of chatbots should certainly look into it as a viable option for improving patient (and practitioner) experience, at the very least.
Technology is the future of healthcare, and chatbots may be the best bet for healthcare practices looking to step into that future.
While the costs of building or buying a chatbot may be a strike against using them, the benefits they provide could potentially outweigh those costs if the conditions are right.
Healthcare providers looking to improve the patient experience should at least consider using a chatbots to make their lives, and the lives of their patients, easier.