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Chatbots can ease providers' burden, offer guidance to those with COVID-19

When the perceived ability is the same, patients viewed chatbots more positively than human agents.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

COVID-19 has placed tremendous pressure on healthcare systems, not only for critical care but also from an anxious public looking for answers.

Data from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business found that chatbots -- software applications that conduct online chats via text or text-to-speech -- working for reputable organizations can ease the burden on medical providers and offer trusted guidance to those with symptoms.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT

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Researchers conducted an online experiment with 371 participants who viewed a COVID-19 screening session between a hotline agent -- chatbot or human -- and a user with mild or severe symptoms.

They studied whether chatbots were seen as being persuasive, providing satisfying information that likely would be followed. The results showed a slight negative bias against chatbots' ability, perhaps due to recent press reports cited by the authors. 

When the perceived ability is the same, however, participants reported that they viewed chatbots more positively than human agents, which is good news for healthcare organizations struggling to meet user demand for screening services. It was the perception of the agent's ability that was the main factor driving user response to screening hotlines.

Even before the pandemic, chatbots were identified as a technology that could speed up how people interact with researchers and find medical information online. And they're scalable, which means they can respond to an unexpected surge in demand, especially when there's a lack of qualified human agents. The operational cost also tends to be quite low.

Authors theorized that some patients may feel more comfortable with a chatbot because the chatbot makes no judgement when provided with sensitive or socially undesirable health information. This is especially relevant given the COVID-19 outbreak: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization have pointed to social stigma and racial discrimination that have occured since the pandemic began, owing somewhat to a negative perception of those who have been in contact with the virus.

The primary factor driving perceptions of ability was the user's trust in the provider of the screening hotline.

THE LARGER TREND

Chatbots are among a mix of old and new technologies that hospitals and health systems are using to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In a digital HIMSS20 presentation, Dr. Zenobia Brown, medical director and vice president of population health management at Northwell, said a sensible approach for health systems is to use a mix of different technologies, and to ensure that there's still a human component behind them, since patient preferences can vary wildly.

Some may want a chatbot and online scheduling capabilities; some may not. The response needs to be nimble enough to adapt to each patient's specific needs.
 

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com