How Chatbots Can Help Us Beat COVID-19

Where chatbots really excel is in rapidly delivering reliable content in response to the recipient’s actual needs, questions, or concerns. That allows AI tools to serve as a bridge between vaccine manufacturers, regulators, public health officials, healthcare providers on the one hand and patients on the other.

Kristina Belyea 8 July 2021 - 7 min. read

More than a year after the coronavirus pandemic began, we’re facing a new challenge: vaccination hesitancy, which the World Health Organization now ranks as one of the top 10 threats to global health. From the United States to Africa, troubling numbers of people are refusing to accept the lifesaving shots, despite clear evidence that they are safe and effective.

With regulators now weighing the benefits of vaccination against a few reports of rare side effects, effective public health communication has never been more important. To keep our global vaccination efforts moving forward, and drive the United States and the rest of the world toward herd immunity, we urgently need smart, effective ways to depoliticize the vaccination process, combat false rumors, and give people the reliable information they need. Fortunately, new tools are emerging that promise to achieve just that: chatbots.

It might sound strange to suggest that digital tools could succeed where public health officials and politicians are struggling, but the reality is that conversational AI tools such as chatbots are already playing an increasingly important role in our healthcare system. A growing number of healthcare organizations now use chatbots to help patients schedule appointments, check symptoms, or handle queries about health insurance. And the pandemic has fueled an uptake of AI tools, with some medical chatbot providers seeing usage triple since the start of the COVID-19 crisis as patients have turned to telemedicine and other digital tools to get the round-the-clock support they need.

Chatbots are also being used more and more widely as part of COVID-19 response strategies. Officials in New York are already using Google’s AI chatbot to handle up to a quarter of COVID-19 inquiries, helping residents to self-schedule vaccines and freeing up human agents to handle trickier inquiries. Further afield in Kazakhstan, where only a quarter of people say they’re willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine, aid agencies are using chatbots to dispel myths circulating on social media and help connect people to more accurate information.

Do such interventions work? The jury’s still out, but early signs are promising. One recent preprint study found that after just a few minutes interacting with a chatbot, the number of people with positive views of COVID-19 vaccines rose by 37%, and the number of people saying they’d decline vaccination fell by 20%. And while patients are often initially wary of using chatbots, research shows that 73% of them ultimately said they found these tools to be helpful.

Of course, chatbots have their limitations. According to one recent survey, 76% of doctors say that chatbots can’t manage the full range of patient needs, and 70% worry that increased reliance on chatbots could leave patients feeling isolated and cut off from their human care team. The reality is that many medical decisions involve value judgements, compassion, and wisdom derived from years of experience rather than the rigid application of rules. Medicine is a science, but it’s also dependent on human insights that can’t be replaced by algorithms.

But within certain domains — potentially including vaccine education — healthcare chatbots are emerging as powerful tools. Already, three out of four physicians say that chatbots are valuable when it comes to helping patients schedule appointments, get medication reminders, or find clinics and healthcare facilities in their area. Many also point to chatbots’ ability to provide medication information and usage directions, or to help with insurance-related queries.

Where chatbots really excel is in rapidly delivering reliable content in response to the recipient’s actual needs, questions, or concerns. That allows AI tools to serve as an efficient bridge between life sciences companies such as vaccine manufacturers, and regulators, public health officials, healthcare providers, and patients. The result: clear information, from reliable sources, delivered on-demand to the people who need it most.

There’s a convenience factor to chatbots that shouldn’t be overlooked, too. Much of the information a chatbot provides can often be found elsewhere — on the CDC website, in user manuals or manufacturers’ educational pamphlets, and so forth. But it’s one thing to go looking for documentation and trawl through it to find the information you need, and quite another to simply ask a question and get an answer.

AI tools can integrate seamlessly into busy healthcare providers’ workflows, putting the accurate, up-to-date information they need at their fingertips in the moment when they need it and empowering them to deliver better patient care. They can also integrate into the patient experience, empowering non-medical people to fact-check things they hear on cable news or read about on Twitter, and to find the accurate information they need on their own terms.

Chatbots can’t handle every inquiry or solve every problem, but they can reduce the strain on human clinicians, receptionists, and call-center workers and free them up to spend more time treating patients or handling complex issues that require human judgment and attention. With everyone currently overworked and overstressed, chatbots help reduce the pressure and enable life sciences and healthcare workers to do their jobs better. That makes it easier for us to reassure people who have concerns about vaccination, to quickly and effectively refute rumors and misinformation, and ultimately to ensure people can make smart, informed decisions about getting vaccinated.

We urgently need clear and effective ways to communicate about COVID-19 in order to beat vaccine hesitancy and speed our journey to herd immunity. We’re already using chatbots across the healthcare system to remind patients to take their meds, to nudge them to stick to diet and exercise plans, to assist with blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar interventions, and to manage mental health. It’s time to lean into the chatbot revolution to help power our COVID-19 vaccination efforts, too.

Photo: anyaberkut, Getty Images

Published on MedCity News