Sep 10 2020

Are Medical Chatbots Able to Detect Coronavirus?

Automated digital platforms guide some patients on their care journeys, but they don’t replace the human quotient.

Many people call them “bots,” and the term can have a negative connotation. 

But the technology — also known as asynchronous communication, artificial intelligence assistants or chatbots — is being used by some medical professionals for an important cause: to support social distancing and safely triage from afar. 

By answering questions on their smartphones, tablets or computers, patients can alleviate some work and worry

Health-oriented chatbots “are critical to the advancement of an efficient but accurate patient assessment, which is required for timely diagnosis,” says Dr. Amy Molten, a pediatrician and director of medicine at Buoy Health, a company that offers an AI-driven online symptom checker and diagnostics platform. 

LEARN MORE: As AI grows more common in healthcare, transparency about its use is critical.

AI Plays a Role in the Pandemic Response

AI-based chatbots can be an effective conversational interface to answer questions, recommend care options, check symptoms or complete tasks such as booking appointments and refilling medication. 

By evaluating several conditions with similar symptoms, the use of differential diagnosis and machine learning algorithms can help guide a person’s care journey, says Maryam Gholami, chief product officer for digital innovation at Providence.

In 2018, the West Coast health system began developing a chatbot known as Grace that leverages algorithms and user-submitted data to identify potential conditions such as urinary tract infections. 

During the pandemic, new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were released to better suggest guidance on next steps — such as a COVID-19 test or an emergency room visit. For those directed to in-person care, their chatbot assessments are forwarded to the Providence doctor providing a virtual visit to expedite and enhance care delivery, Gholami says.

Chatbots Provide Patients with On-Demand Advice

Sutter Health, a nonprofit health system based in Sacramento, Calif., provides a comprehensive online symptom-checker for patients — and it now includes COVID-19 screening questions.

A team of doctors curated the Sutter chatbot’s medical data using a probabilistic reasoning engine and a deep knowledge base that evaluates a user’s risk factors, medical history and current symptoms, says Jeff Cutler, chief commercial officer at Ada Health, a Berlin-based company that developed the platform, which is available on the Sutter website and its patient portal.

Dr. Albert Chan, Sutter’s vice president and chief of digital patient experience, describes the AI assistant as “the equivalent of having 60 doctors in your pocket to provide answers — 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” 

Roughly half of the asynchronous queries occur outside of office hours, and patients’ chatbot use nearly tripled after COVID-19 hit. 

READ MORE: AI-enabled solutions in healthcare are moving beyond a simple one-way transfer of information.

A Look at AI Beyond the Pandemic

Although AI assistants don’t technically diagnose patient conditions, they have tremendous potential, says Molten, of Buoy Health. 

Developers, she adds, must address issues of data quality as well as any implicit racial and gender bias: Heart attack symptoms, for example, often present differently in women.

AI assistants shouldn’t be expected to replace a doctor’s personal touch, however.

“It’s not our goal, but rather to be an additive method for helping to improve care and to drive down costs across the industry,” Molten says. “As the field matures, they will have the ability to provide a very important bird’s-eye view of illness.”

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