The Role and Risks of Chatbots in the Healthcare Industry

With the help of certain advanced software programs, chatbots are developing into sophisticated and integral parts of the overall healthcare system

Chatbots have already been in use for some time, and they are often associated with certain kinds of industries. On retail sites, for example, it is not at all surprising to see a little bot pop up on your screen to ask you if you need help. In much the same way, chatbots have become increasingly prominent in other industries recently, too. Banking, real estate, entertainment… many different types of sites are using these little talking icons as a way of providing customer assistance and receiving feedback on service quality.

What about healthcare, though? People might think that this is too delicate of a field to relegate to a computer. In fact, though, chatbots are becoming quite popular in healthcare and are now serving many functions once thought unlikely. And with the help of certain advanced software programs, these tools are developing into sophisticated and integral parts of the overall healthcare system.

How exactly do chatbots work?

Like their chatbot brethren in other industries, healthcare chatbots are powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and utilize natural language processing (NLP) in their functioning. They are programmed to understand a wide range of symptoms and other languages related to health issues and respond accordingly.

Chatbots are constantly becoming more and more refined, and they are now a long way from the primitive versions that kept repeating the same question over and over, regardless of what the answer was.

What kind of medical assistance can chatbots provide?

Providing recommendations

If a person is experiencing health problems, chatbots can be very effective at providing advice. This can include advice on medicine, lifestyle changes, medical procedures, etc. While most search engines tend to group together queries into broader categories, chatbots are refined to the point of being able to address highly nuanced and complex issues.

These AI-operated programs are growing in popularity to the point where some consider them personal “self-care coaches.” In addition to providing suggestions on medication, chatbots can assist people in such things as monitoring calorie intake, measuring physical activity, and performing other, related functions that normally require various sorts of other equipment.

Beyond this, bots are programmed with updated information about health and wellness programs that can be useful to people. Some even send inspirational messages to people hoping to change their lifestyles as a form of encouragement.

Coordinating with medical teams

Chatbots can be enormously helpful in reducing the workload of medical professionals. In helping to determine diagnoses, the information gathered from a chatbot can then be transferred to doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and whatever other professionals are involved in treating a given medical case. This helps to streamline the whole process of patient treatment and follow-up. It saves the whole team time, money, and effort, and may well improve the accuracy of diagnoses, as well.

In addition, scheduling appointments is becoming easier. Chatbots often have automated access to doctors’ schedules, so setting up an appointment can be as easy as getting online and typing in why you want to see the doctor.

Chatbots have connected patients to clinical trials, as well, which is helping to improve research on certain diseases.

Data gathering for more efficient healthcare systems

Beyond simply assisting individuals with their health-related issues, chatbots gather feedback from patients, and this feedback is used to help improve systems overall. In addition to improving diagnosis and treatment suggestions, patient feedback is used to make healthcare operations better, more efficient, and potentially less costly.

Also, the use of bots helps to reduce the number of accidents that occur in hospitals (some say as many as 200,000 deaths per year occur due to a lack of patient safety). With improved and increasingly automated systems, many of these accidents will become preventable.

Risks of chatbots in healthcare

There are, of course, some risks involved. As with most things that involve data transfer over networks, there is a potential for exposure and hacking. As bots are further developed in the future, programmers will have to ensure that data security is as tight as it can be to minimize this possibility.

It is also the case that many people really value the fact that their doctors are human and are weary of telling a machine all their problems. Should we really trust a robot to give us an accurate diagnosis when we are in severe pain? Some people think no. The reason doctors’ “bedside manner” is one of the characteristics that is highly valued by patients is because doctors also offer a great deal of emotional support to patients. Can this be addressed by chatbots? To some extent, yes. But in some cases it will take time.

And of course there is a risk of misdiagnosis. This is also the case for humans, of course, but if a bot doesn’t ask the right follow-up question, for example, when someone is complaining about this or that pain, that person will end up getting the wrong treatment. In addition, there are ethical concerns related to the potential misuse of data.

So these are all real and legitimate concerns. Nonetheless, things generally seem to be looking up for bots in the industry.

Future of healthcare chatbots

It may not be much of an exaggeration to say that chatbots will revolutionize healthcare, perhaps even globally. So much information is considered proprietary by either private or national healthcare systems that many people get shut out of the process. Still others get partial access, but proper care might come too late, be of insufficient quality, or come at such an enormous cost that they can hardly afford it.

Chatbots will help to democratize many aspects of healthcare by making it more accessible, accurate, and affordable for many people. Of course, bots cannot do everything. If you have an emergency health situation that needs to be taken care of by a doctor immediately, then a machine will not be able to talk you through the treatment.

However, there are many aspects of healthcare that are already being made easier by bots and other advances in AI, and will become even more so in the future as apps will become more readily available to a greater percentage of the population and they will be more informative and easier to use.