How virtual health assistants are changing the care delivery equation

Outdated technology and processes create challenges across an overburdened healthcare system, resulting in increased costs, alienated patients, and inferior outcomes across the healthcare system.

However, virtual health assistants and chatbots aim to improve the conversation between healthcare provides, payers and patients and put more information in the hands of the end users, to help healthcare organizations improve processes and reduce costs.

“Virtual health assistants can help healthcare organizations improve processes and put more information in the hands of their users,” explained Hadas Bitran, group manager for Microsoft Healthcare Israel.

Bitran, who will address the topic this week at HIMSS20, said to provide value, virtual health assistants need to be built with healthcare intelligence, including understanding medical terminology, user intents and context, and providing credible answers.

“The virtual assistant needs to be integrated to the organization’s assets and extended to support its processes and needs, while maintaining top privacy, security and compliance standards to allow it to handle healthcare use cases and data,” Bitran noted. “Virtual health assistants need to be designed to bring enough value to users, be it patients or doctors.”

She said challenges and pitfalls can include virtual assistants that are designed to be too limited, or can only do one thing.

This means virtual assistants need to be able to handle diversion from the conversation and unexpected responses, and they need to constantly learn what the user expectations are.

“Especially in healthcare, virtual assistants need to constantly update the content they rely on, and need to understand when they don’t understand or can’t help,” Bitran said. “Those challenges and pitfalls need to be considered right from the start, when choosing the technology.”

Microsoft Healthcare sees a broad range of use cases for virtual health assistants, including cases that involve checking symptoms and finding information about providers, services, locations and coverage.

Virtual health assistants could also help with finding information about healthcare conditions, medications and procedures, and improving administrative processes like proactive follow-up, sending reminders and scheduling.

“We also see use cases like assessment questionnaires and matching patients to potential clinical trials,” she said. “As virtual health assistants become more integrated with the healthcare system, their role will expand.”

Mobile technology and connected devices will also allow virtual health assistants to become a productive mean of communication between remote patients, providers and payers, and put more information in the hands of users when and where they need it.

Bitran noted one example for this impact is that the broad types of media available to mobile users introduces the need for virtual health assistants to support voice channels, handle visual inputs, and enable contextual handoff to humans over chat, voice or video.

She noted that while virtual assistants will not replace medical professionals, the virtual assistants could augment the medical professionals’ work and reduce the burden on them from the system.

Bitran will share insights on virtual health assistants in her HIMSS20 session, “Virtual Health Assistants: Best Practices and Real Use Cases.” It’s scheduled for Tuesday, March 10, from 3-4 pm in room W414A.

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