This Opinion piece was published in Pharmafield:
In the rapidly changing world of digital healthcare, there are an increasing number of ways that technology is being used to impact and improve the everyday lives of patients and healthcare professionals (HCPs).
Two examples of AI that are becoming commonplace in the consumer world but are yet to be routinely adopted for use in healthcare are chatbots and voice assistants.
- Chatbots are computer programmes that use AI to facilitate conversational interactions with users. Companies are adopting chatbots as a convenient and intuitive way to engage with their customers, 24/7.
- Voice assistants use voice recognition and natural language processing (NLP) to answer questions and complete tasks according to voice commands.
Chatbots’ potential use in healthcare
There are many simple questions about treatments that do not require the full attention of a doctor and can be answered with information from the summary of product characteristics or patient information leaflet. However, if the patient doesn’t know where to look, or can’t easily find the information they need, they can be left feeling confused and frustrated. Making information easily accessible via a chatbot could help prevent unnecessary anxiety or trips to the doctor.
AI can also help with more complex health needs. For example, the chatbot ‘Woebot’ combines NLP with cognitive behaviour therapy techniques, to help people monitor and manage their mental health. Research suggests people find it easier to talk to a ‘virtual companion’ about personal or sensitive subjects than a real person. This could play a major role in helping patients manage chronic diseases or stigmatised conditions.
Voice assistants improve efficiency
Imagine how the efficiency of care home staff could be improved by capturing notes via an Amazon Echo (using Amazon’s ‘Alexa’ voice assistant), or by prioritising requests from patients remotely before attending in person.
Voice assistants could also provide a virtual companion for patients who live alone and are experiencing loneliness.
Apps or ‘Skills’ provided through voice assistants can empower patients to manage their own health. This is particularly useful for patients who may have been unable to use technology in the past, such as those lacking manual dexterity or with impaired vision. AI can allow immobile patients to complete tasks without the need to move around, at home or in hospital.
Voice assistants could allow HCPs to ask questions and source medical information ‘hands-free’, perhaps while treating a patient or even while driving.
Enhanced patient experience
We expect widespread adoption of chatbots and voice assistants to happen in the healthcare sector, but the speed of that adoption is still unclear. It will be interesting to see which companies capitalise right now, offering an ‘in the moment’, enhanced experience for their customers and patients and gaining a competitive edge in customer insight, engagement, and ultimately commercial outcome.
Compliance with the industry code of practice is vital, and clear hand-off points to a human are required when the technology is unable to provide the information needed. As with most digital innovations, starting small, prototyping and testing early in development are the keys to minimising risk and expense while exploring new possibilities.