Amidst today’s public health crisis, a wide range of organizations — health systems, digital health providers, employers, payors, government agencies and beyond — face unprecedented pressures to scale their response to COVID-19. These entities now have never-before-imagined realities to educate the public, provide rapid triage, and reduce infection risk, all within constraints of limited resources and rapidly changing circumstances

Today, millions of people across the globe are contacting overwhelmed call centers and visiting overburdened emergency departments. In recent weeks, digital health innovators have risen to the occasion to help address these challenges by making Covid-19-specific chatbots available.  Chatbots are now automating the delivery of clinically-vetted information to those actively seeking care and to those searching for answers to questions. As a gesture of goodwill during this pandemic, many vendors are providing Covid-19 chatbots at cost.

Leading organizations have deployed online symptom checkers to do basic screening for Covid-19.  But what can an organization do to extend a chatbot beyond basic Q&A and screening capabilities? How can chatbots and other virtual engagement solutions enable people to take actionable steps – to schedule appointments (telehealth or in-person,) to find a testing facility, to access educational resources, to direct individuals to emergency care when appropriate, or to notify them for daily screening to address escalations in symptoms?

As this pandemic unfolds, organizations may want to consider various inflection points they’ll likely face – and evaluate their future needs for an underlying virtual engagement architecture. As entities evaluate or add chatbots to their offerings, they may want to consider the following, especially if they need to scale for enterprise needs, make a future-proof investment, etc.:

  • Is the chatbot developed by an organization with deep experience in meeting HIPAA and other security requirements? Does it have administrative and technical safeguards in place to ensure compliance?
  • Can the bot work on web browsers, mobile phones, smart speakers and other environments? Is it available as a voicebot over landlines and analog phones (still widely used by at-risk populations, especially the aging)? What are its omnichannel capabilities?
  • Can users seamlessly move from the chatbot experience to other applications to take next steps? Will the chatbot readily integrate with provider directories, appointment schedulers, telehealth applications, etc.?  Can it easily move someone to a live agent (chat or in-person?)
  • How flexible is the content in the chatbot’s knowledge base? Is it hard-coded? Many of today’s chatbots use clinically vetted content from the CDC. Can the chatbot be expanded to incorporate content from other sources as new information becomes available? Can it ingest data for FAQs and screeners, etc. (Covid and non-Covid?)
  • Is the chatbot scalable to other enterprise uses once operations go back to a “new normal?”
  • Is the chatbot built on a platform that provides multi-modal authoring tools and intuitive interfaces for cross-functional teams to create, publish and manage content dynamically over time?
  • Does the platform support sophisticated knowledge graphing to enable richer, more relevant experiences?  Does it have an interaction model that uses machine learning to make inferences from a user’s questions and deliver contextually aware responses?

What Chatbot Features Does Your Organization Need?
For the foreseeable future, organizations will have unique needs — with demands remaining fluid as new Covid-19 information comes to light. When planning for and deploying virtual engagement solutions, organizations are advised to consider the needs of key populations:

The Worried Well: An organization can empower this population with a basic web chatbot. It immediately provides Covid-19-specific responsiveness. It creates calm by helping these individuals understand what’s most important to think about. A more robust chatbot can incorporate navigator functionality – directing patients to custom endpoints such as emergency response centers, specific call centers for at-risk or symptomatic populations, or virtual visits.

Symptomatic Patients: Low-acuity patients must be empowered to address their needs at home in isolation. These individuals require support as well as routine check-ins to ensure escalations or condition changes are immediately addressed. Virtual health checks must cater to older and less digitally savvy populations and to those in lower-resourced environments. Just as the virus does not discriminate in targeting only those with access to information and care, check-in capabilities need to be broad and deep as well. Options for SMS texting and analog phones are important.

At-Risk Patients:  For this population, ongoing health checks should be pushed to individuals at a regularly scheduled cadence (often daily, sometimes several times a day.) Engagement delivered via chatbots, voicebots, SMS, mobile devices, smart speakers, analog phones, etc. can provide education, preparedness tips, and population-specific prevention protocols. These solutions must be fluid enough to address varying reminder and notification needs as individual conditions change. Organizations can use these solutions to secure valuable data to monitor trends and evaluate the effectiveness of various interventions. Content delivered via a robust knowledge base can empower at-risk patients – with strategies aligned to prevent and protect against infection based on specific health needs.

Employee populations:  Medical equipment manufacturers and other essential businesses are seeking ways to keep employees healthy and well-supported, including many who are now working extra hours to respond to this crisis. Organizations have new demands to monitor and manage the health of employees — both those working onsite and those working remotely from home (including many who previously did not work remotely.) Routine wellness checks can provide resources, support, and screening for symptoms. Wellness checks can be delivered via an employee portal or via SMS on employee smartphones. The employee has a personalized, secure experience, while the employer can triage issues to help desks and command centers as appropriate.

Going Forward
As the volume of diagnosed COVID-19 cases grows, chatbot and other technologies can support new approaches for frontline response. To remain as agile as possible, organizations should consider using chatbots, smart speaker applications, and other modalities with inherent flexibility and extensibility. Caution must be taken to ensure these solutions fully address healthcare privacy and security requirements. Organizations should consider if and when a conversational AI platform makes sense for their needs.

By alleviating some of the burden on healthcare workers who are now suffering from burnout, conversational AI technologies will help scale the capacity of the healthcare system as it deals with this pandemic.

Photo: anyaberkut, Getty Images

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