By Joe Nieto, Director of Customer Engagement for Healthcare, Element Blue
In 2020, U.S. hospitals and health systems totaled an estimated $323 billion in pandemic-related losses, leaving nearly half of them with negative operating margins heading into 2021. A recent report from Kaufman Hall projects that hospitals and health systems could lose an additional $53 to $122 billion in revenue in 2021. There is general consensus about the immense pressure on hospitals and healthcare providers, and no functional area is immune from impact: operations, clinical, admissions, etc. Hospital staff are flooded with tasks including scheduling appointments, assessing referrals, managing insurance, tracking equipment, directing patients to the correct specialist and more.
Daunting numbers and razor-thin margins have forced health systems to do more with less. Many are finding that adding an automation component to the innovation strategy can be a game-changer by cost-effectively improving operations throughout the organization to the benefit of both staff and patients. Embracing new technologies – such as robotic process automation enabled with chatbots – is key to achieving the interdependent goals of reducing costs and serving patients better.
There are several functions RPA-enabled chatbots can automate that will bring immediate value to hospitals.
CHATBOT USE CASES THAT BENEFIT HOSPITALS
1. Appointment Scheduling
Managing appointments is one of the more taxing operations in any hospital. Although scheduling systems are in use, many patients still find it difficult to navigate the process. Some of the tools lack flexibility and make it impossible for hospitals to hide their backend/internal schedules intended only for staff.
With a messaging interface, the website/app visitors can easily access a chatbot. Chatbots can schedule appointments based on a doctor’s availability. In addition, specific chatbots can be designed to interact with CRM systems like Microsoft Dynamics or Salesforce to help staff track visits and follow-up appointments for a particular patient, while keeping the information handy for future reference. Chatbots may even collect and process co-payments to further streamline the process.
2. Providing Patient Healthcare Information
Pre- and post-consults result in a multitude of inquiries about diet, sleep routines, medications, and more. These questions are important, but seldom need input from a busy provider who has many more patients to attend to. “How can I get a prescription?” “How long is someone contagious after a viral infection?” “When is the next vaccination for my 2-year-old baby?” “Is there a specific diet to be followed during my medication period?” “How often should I change my bandages?”
Questions like these are very important, but could be answered without a specialist. A chatbot is able to walk a patient through post-op procedures, inform them about what to expect, and suggest when to make contact for medical help. Chatbots also remember conversations and can report the nature of a patient’s questions to their provider. This type of information is invaluable to the patient and sets up the provider and patient for a better consultation.
A chatbot trained for FAQs can address generic patient queries. Because the chatbot is live 24x7x365 on a website, it can address patients’ inquiries at their convenience and, if help is needed, provide a connection to a live agent.
3. Symptom Assessment
A symptom checker bot, such as Conversa, can be the first line of contact between the patient and a hospital. The chatbot is capable of asking relevant questions and understanding symptoms. The platform automates care along the way by helping to identify high-risk patients and placing them in touch with a healthcare provider via phone call, telehealth, e-visit, or in-person appointment.
During Covid, chatbots aided in patient triage by guiding them to useful information, directing them to help, and helping them find vaccination locations. A chatbot can also help patients shortlist relevant doctors and schedule appointments. Regardless of the time of day, chatbots greet patients with relevant diagnostic questions in a conversational manner and provide a warm and reassuring customer experience at the beginning of a patient’s journey with a caregiver. With the help of a healthcare chatbot, caregivers can access necessary details (e.g., frequency and severity of symptoms) before they ever see a patient, helping them gain a better understanding of a patient’s health situation.
The non-human nature of chatbots provides a sense of security to users when it comes to the sensitive subjects of mental health and psychological conditions. Chatbots offer a listening nature that has proven to be therapeutic for people in mental distress. The first psychotherapist chatbot, ELIZA, was built on the simple concept of confirming the information communicated by the user. For example, User: “I am feeling down.” ELIZA: “You say you are feeling down? Tell me more about it.” Chatbot technology has evolved considerably since ELIZA, and newer products like Wysa and WoeBot have inked large deals with companies including Aetna. With training using Natural Language Processing (NLP), today’s healthcare chatbots can augment a therapist’s work with context-based responses.
5. Update on Lab Reports
Chatbots can seamlessly help patients keep track of their latest lab results. A chatbot can also assist in locating nearby testing centers or pathology labs, report on prices of various tests, etc. These use cases facilitate easier and faster access to information. Given the sense of urgency associated with medical reports, an instant response by a chatbot can make a world of difference to a provider and a patient, and the patient experience is enhanced while reducing administrative costs.
6. Internal Team Coordination
Reaching beyond the needs of the patients, hospital staff can also benefit from chatbots. Today, care management teams are burdened more than ever. A chatbot can be used for internal record-keeping of hospital equipment like beds, oxygen cylinders, wheelchairs, etc. Whenever team members need to check the availability or the status of equipment, they can simply ask a bot. The bot will then fetch data from the system, making operations information readily available to all staff. This automation results in better team coordination while decreasing delays due to interdependence among teams.
Providers can also access patient information such as prescribed medication, check-up reports, allergies, scheduled and canceled appointments, etc. This significantly reduces the time spent searching for updates in the patient information system, and lowers error rates. Why navigate through endless menus, options, and work queues when it is much simpler to ask a chatbot a conversational question like “What are the vitals of Mary Jones?” Because a chatbot understands context, knows Ms. Jones’ provider, and knows her attending physician, it can report specific information quickly and accurately.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There are countless opportunities to automate processes and provide real value in healthcare. Offloading simple use cases to chatbots can help healthcare providers focus on treating patients, increasing facetime, and substantially improving the patient experience. They efficiently, effectively, and economically enable and extend the hours of healthcare into the realm of virtual healthcare. There is a need and desire to advance America’s healthcare system post-pandemic. Change is coming. Healthcare providers should be ready.
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