Chatbots and virtual health assistants may be coming to a hospital near you.
As providers look to better engage patients and improve efficiency, many are turning to artificial intelligence to help them succeed.
AI-powered medical assistants can book appointments, remind patients to take their pills, monitor a patient’s health status and perform other time-intensive tasks. They can also assist with inventory, billing and claims management.
In Arizona, a doctor designed an influenza campaign around a chatbot that alerted patients when flu shots were in and invited them to get protection.
Rising smartphone use coupled with the increasing popularity of health apps and the Internet of Things, as well as growing adoption of telemedicine and other mobile health technologies, is driving market growth. According to Global Market Insights, the virtual health assistant market is expected to exceed $1.5 billion by 2024.
Major industry players include Nuance Communications, Next IT, Welltok, True Image Interactive and Medrespond, but there are a number of smaller, lesser-known firms that are having an impact in the space.
It’s still a “very, very emergent” market, Laura Craft, research director at IT consultancy Gartner, told Healthcare Dive.
“The real vision is for them to be avatars, perhaps used as the interface to have sentiment analysis,” said Craft, who sees the first tier of value in helping patients stay on meds or manage chronic conditions.
But while there are a few avatar-based health bots, in general there needs to be more maturing of the foundational technologies they rely on before they become mainstream in healthcare.
For example, while there have been major strides in natural speech recognition technology, sentiment analysis — the ability to intuit how a patient is feeling and ask questions that reflect on that — is still in very early stages. It could be highly applicable in spaces like behavioral health.
A long way from Eliza
Practically speaking, the market can be split into chatbots — which allow patients to have a conversation and offer some customized decision logic or act as a customer service interface — and more personalized virtual health assistants.
The idea of a robotic chat agent isn’t new. Eliza, the world’s first chatbot, was created by MIT scientists 50 years ago as a Rogerian psychotherapist that could reflect and provide feedback on what patients said. Current examples of virtual health assistants include:
- Florence acts as a virtual nurse helping patients with medication adherence and maintaining healthcare regimens. It also can help locate specialists and schedule appointments.
- Eva helps women track their menstrual cycles and pregnancies.
- Molly — an avatar-based virtual nurse assistant — connects patients with clinical advice to assess their condition and suggest appropriate followup.
- HealthTap allows people to chat with a doctor and send pictures and copies of lab results to see if a problem requires additional care.
- Your.MD asks users about symptoms and offers medically approved potential conditions and then makes referrals and schedules appointments.
- Ada is an AI-powered technology, asking people how they’re feeling and guiding them on next steps.
From an efficiency standpoint, chatbots offer a real opportunity to relieve staff of repetitive tasks. They also could help organizations deal with staff and budget constraints.