How healthbots can assist patients and HCPs

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A year after healthbot Gyant launched, it has reached 800,000 users, according to Stefan Behrens, co-founder of Gyant.

“Remember to put ice on that bruise tonight,” says healthbot Gyant via Facebook Messenger. Gyant adds that Chris, the user engaging with the bot, could try playing Vanilla Ice's “Ice Ice, Baby” to speed up the healing process.

The dialogue is conversational. Over the course of three to four minutes, Gyant asks around 20 questions to get at the cause of the user's discomfort and offer possible diagnoses or recommendations. Users can also ask Gyant questions via Amazon's Alexa.

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“We've noticed the number of questions doesn't matter as much as how you ask them and how you respond to people's answers,” said Stefan Behrens, co-founder of Gyant. “If you ask question after question, it's like filling [out] a form. We make sure our questions are asked in the nicest way possible, as human as possible.”

Since Gyant launched in 2016, it has reached 1.3 million users to date, Behrens claimed. Since Gyant originated as a resource to screen patients for Zika, much of its traffic comes from Latin American countries such as Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia. The company is also generating traction in the southern parts of the U.S., Behrens added. Gyant is currently available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and German, and there are plans to expand in French, Chinese, Arabic, and Hindi.

Florence, Health Tap, Buoy Health, and Your.MD are among the other healthbots currently offering medication reminders, symptom checkers, health tips,doctor referrals, and other services.

See also: Lighthouse wins grand prize for voice-activated diabetes app at Hitlab

“As doctors are more stretched for time, there's a lot of frustration in the healthcare system,” said Paul Balagot, chief experience officer at Precisioneffect. “I think the appetite to use [bots] as a support tool is high.”

A new report by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that the shortfall of doctors will approach 90,000 by 2025. That number could reach nearly 105,000 by 2030.

According to Balagot, healthbots can potentially reduce the workload of healthcare professionals while providing an engaging experience to patients. They can help focus the patient-doctor conversation by checking initial symptoms and tracking patient history, then provide post-treatment support after the initial interaction.

For conditions such as diabetes, physicians may be able to help patients combat the overt symptoms. Still, they sometimes are unable to follow up with patients who need to make changes to their diets and exercise regimens. Behrens believes healthbots can provide the necessary support.

See also: Voice assistants may ease EHR burden for docs, but challenges exist

In addition, healthbots may ultimately help reduce the volume of unnecessary doctor visits. “If you look at primary care physicians, many of them will tell you that they can't help 40% of the patients they see every week, because [the patient has] a viral infection, for example,” said Behrens. “So it's, ‘Go home, get some rest, and take some ibuprofen,' but you can't do much about the source of the condition.”

In some cases, especially those where there is a stigma tied to a condition, chatbots have become a preferred means of securing healthcare advice. Behrens said many users ask Gyant mental and sexual health-related questions, which sometimes trigger feelings of shame and anxiety.

“A lot of the users are relatively younger — around 16 to 25 — and come from developing countries, where there is a lot of social stigma around marriage and social norms,” Behrens continued. “We see a lot of questions around, ‘I did this. Could I be pregnant?' or ‘I have this rash.'”

Dawn Lacallade, chief social strategist and healthcare practice lead at social customer experience firm LiveWorld, senses a similar trend among clients like Anthem, Johnson & Johnson, and Boehringer Ingelheim. While she declined to offer program specifics, Lacallade said LiveWorld has helped one client develop a bot to collect data about sexual health in adolescents, with the ultimate aim of offering STD education.

See also: Amazon sets its sights on healthcare

“There's often an intimidation factor when you're talking to an HCP,” Lacallade explained. “A bot is a great tool to recap a conversation with an HCP, putting it in language to make it more understandable.”

As bot technology gets more sophisticated and chatbots secure HIPAA compliance, healthbots will start to realize their full potential.

“The first generation of chatbots was a bit robotic and didn't have the advancements of natural language, sentiment, and emotion,” said Balagot. “With AI technology advancing, the chatbots are becoming increasingly empathetic and natural, and more engaging.”

It's hard to be HIPAA-compliant when paired with social media platforms like Facebook, however,  which is why Gyant  is developing an app of its own. “We're taking the same technology and chat experience, and putting it in an app or secure website. That will allow us to seamlessly move the conversation to an actual human provider, be it a doctor or administrator,” Behrens noted. “Ideally, we want to [help] people get prescriptions or [sign up for] a telemedicine visit.”

This story has been updated.

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