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Could AI And Healthcare Chatbots Help Clinicians Communicate With Patients?

Posted on April 25, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

AI-driven chatbots are becoming increasingly popular for a number of reasons, including improving technology and a need to automate some routine processes. (I’d also argue that these models are emerging because millennials and Gen Z-ers have spent their lives immersed in online-based social environments, and are far less likely to be afraid of or uncomfortable with such things.)

Given the maturation of the technology, I’m not surprised to see a number of AI-driven chatbots for healthcare emerging.  Some of these merely capture symptoms, such as the diabetes, CHF and mental health monitoring options by Sense.ly.

But other AI-based chatbots attempt to go much further. One emerging company, X2ai, is rolling out a psychology-oriented chatbot offering mental health counseling, Another, UK-based startup Babylon Health, offers a text-only mobile apps which provides medical evaluations and screenings. The app is being pilot-tested with the National Health Service, where early reports say that it’s diagnosing and triaging patients successfully.

One area I haven’t seen explored, though, is using a chatbot to help doctors handle routine communications with patients. Such an app could not only triage patients, as with the NHS example, but also respond to routine email messages.

Scheduling and administration

The reality is that while doctors and nurses are used to screening patients via telephone, they’re afraid of being swamped by tons of electronic patient messages. Many feel that if they agree to respond to patient email messages via a patient portal, they’ll spend too much time doing so. With most already time-starved, it’s not surprising that they’re worried about this.

But a combination of AI and healthcare chatbot technology could reduce their time required to engage patients. In fact, the right solution could address a few medical practice workflow issues at one time.

First, it could triage and route patient concerns to doctors and advanced practice nurses, something that’s done now by unqualified clerks or extremely busy nurses. For example, the patient would be able to tell the chatbot why they wanted to schedule a visit, with the chatbot teasing out some nuances in their situation. Then, the chatbot could kick the information over to the patient’s provider, who could, with a few clicks, forward a request to schedule either an urgent or standard consult.

Perhaps just as important, the AI technology could sit atop messages sent between provider and patient. If the patient message asked a routine question – such as when their test results would be ready – the system could bounce back a templated message stating, for instance, that test results typically take five business days to post on the patient portal. It could also send templated responses to requests for medical records, questions about doctor availability or types of insurance accepted and so on.

Diagnosis and triage

Meanwhile, if the AI concludes that the patient has a health concern to address, it could send back a link to the chatbot, which would ask pertinent questions and send the responses to the treating clinician. At that point, if things look questionable, the doctor might choose to intervene with their own email message or phone call.

Of course, providers will probably be worried about relying on a chatbot for patient triage, especially the legal consequences if the bot misses something important. But over time, if health chatbot pilots like the UK example offer good results, they may eventually be ready to give this approach a shot.

Also, patients may be uncertain about working with a chatbot at first. But if physicians stress that they’re not trying put them off, but rather, to save time so they can take their time when patients need them, I think they’ll be satisfied.

I admit that under ideal circumstances, clinicians would have more time to communicate with patients directly. But the truth is, they simply don’t, and pressuring them to take phone calls or respond to every online message from patients won’t work.

Besides, as providers work to prepare for value-based care, they’ll need not only physician extenders, but physician extender-extenders like chatbots to engage patients and keep track of their needs. So let’s give them a shot.

E-Patient Update:  The Virtues, And Failings, Of Doctor-Patient Email

Posted on January 10, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my experiences with emailing my providers. I’m certainly grateful that this channel is now available, as I’ve used it to manage some important health problems. That being said, there’s also some new challenges to address when reaching out to your clinician.

Some of the important benefits I’ve gotten from emailing my doctors include:

  • Cutting out middlemen: If I want to communicate with my PCP outside of a medical visit, I have to call, wait on hold for the receptionist to answer, then wait for a nurse to find out what I want, who might get back to me if she can track down the doctor. Email communication bypasses the whole bureaucracy, which I love.
  • Quick solutions: If a doctor is at all wired, she may be able to shoot quick responses to basic questions (“Do I need to schedule a follow-up?”) far more quickly than if I’m at the end of a voice-message queue. Of course, the more email she has the longer it may take to respond, but responding to my email is still quicker than a phone conversation in most cases.
  • Messaging during off hours: If I want to communicate with a doctor, but the issue isn’t critical, I can write to them anytime I’d like – even while I’m eating a 3AM snack! I don’t have to wait until office hours, when I’m likely to be juggling other workaday issue and forget to reach out.

But there are also disadvantages to emailing my doctors, and they’re significant:

  • Problems with communication: A few times, I’ve been in situations where emailing doctors created confusion rather than clarifying things. For example, one specialist sent me an email suggesting an appointment slot, and though I never confirmed, he still considered the slot booked (and charged me for missing it)! That was a relatively petty problem, but if there was a similar level of misunderstanding about a clinical matter it could have been much worse.
  • Unclear expectations: If you call a medical practice’s service overnight for help with a serious problem, you can be pretty sure the on-call doc will call back. But when you email a doctor, it’s not clear what you can expect. There’s no formal rule – or even best practices guidelines, as far as I know – governing how quickly doctors should answer emails, what issues they’re willing to tackle via this medium or how they should handle email responses when they’re on vacation or ill (ask a colleague or nurse to monitor their inbox?)
  • Lack of context: In most cases, the email messages I’ve gotten from doctors resemble text messages rather than letters. Sometimes that’s enough, but in other cases I wish I could get more context on, say, why they’re recommending a med or suggesting I get screened at an emergency department.

Without a doubt, being able to email doctors is a good thing. However, I think it will work better for both sides if doctors have tools that help them manage multichannel conversations with patients.

Specifically, I believe doctors need access to a secure messaging portal, one which offers not only a unified inbox but also tools for prioritizing messages, perhaps using AI to identify urgent issues, and automates routine tasks. Ideally, it would identify patients by their name or email address, and pop up a patient status summary for those with urgent concerns — and yes, this would probably require EMR integration, but why not? (Feel free to write me at anne@ziegerhealthcare.com if something like this already exists!)

The last thing we need is for patient emails to become one more cause of physician burnout. So let’s give doctors the tools they need to manage the messaging process effectively and stay connected with patients who need them most. In fact, what if we made the messaging so effective that it saved them time over a voicemail message?

Why Accepting Patient Email is a Practical Requirement of the Affordable Care Act

Posted on July 31, 2013 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

The following is a guest post by Zachary Landman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for DoctorBase.
landman fb
With the infusion of 30 million patients into the U.S. healthcare system in the coming years, the physician shortage is only going to worsen. In Massachusetts, which has had a similar healthcare legislation enacted since 2006, improvements in healthcare coverage and access are highly associated with physician shortages. Prior to the implementation of the health law in Massachusetts, internal medicine and family practice physicians were in deemed to be in “adequate” supply. Almost immediately following the legislation and in nearly every year since, however, the specialties have listed as “critical.”  While the percent of covered patients in the system has reached upwards of 95%, the result has been that physicians are increasingly difficult to visit. Appointment wait times have soared into weeks and months for some specialties and there has been frustration from both patients and providers regarding access.
MMA workforce 2006 and on
An even direr scenario is expected to play out on a national scale when 55 million people currently without insurance enter the healthcare market through subsidized exchanges. Economists predict that the current shortage of physicians will balloon to 63,000 by 2015 and escalate to 130,600 by 2025, due to both increasing demand and dwindling supply. To add salt the wound, a 2012 Physicians Foundation survey demonstrated that nearly half of the 830,000 doctors in the U.S. are over 50 meaning that as the number of patients swell, the supply of physicians will conversely retract.

Clearly, the way healthcare is provided will need to fundamentally change in order to accommodate the three main tenants of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: Access, Quality, and Cost. One potential way is to simply force physicians and healthcare providers to see more patients in the current set of time or work longer or more frequently to maintain their level of reimbursement. Physician time, however, especially for chronically ill and complex patients has become a relatively “inelastic product.”

Physicians already experience significant rates of burnout, are feeling overworked, and have increased the frequency of patient visits to between and 6 and 9 minutes per encounter. Some studies suggest that trying to reduce this amount of time further may actually cause an increase in costs due to inadequate care, counseling, and increased frequency of complications. I would therefore argue that we have reached a point at which physicians cannot increase the volume and frequency of patient care without a fundamental alteration to the paradigm of healthcare.

Secure email may just be the answer. Securely messaging patients can provide a way to fundamentally alter the type and scope of care provided remotely leading to a maintenance or even reduction in the amount of patient care conducted in the office. The fundamental “if” in this scenario, however, is that it must save physician time. For example, physicians have known the value of hand hygiene in patient care for nearly two centuries, but only recently has widespread adoption been shown in an inpatient setting. What led to the main change? Time.  It takes considerable time to cleanse hands thoroughly between each visit. Only when the practice became a time-neutral or time saving event were physicians keen to alter practice behavior. With the inclusion of quick, visible, and easy to use dispensers outside each patient room, these two principles finally coincided.

It’s the same with email. Many physicians worry that by accepting patient messages, their already inelastic time will continually be stretched, forcing them to work longer and harder for a non-reimbursed activity.  After studying more than 11,000 physicians over three years, I have found that the effective use of secure messaging saves physicians on average 45 minutes per day.

Three hours and forty-five minutes per week. That’s a lot of time. And here’s where it comes from.

#1 – Triage. Physician messages should be directed to a practice manager or physician extender who triages the messages and forwards to the appropriate individual. In our case, we found that nearly two-thirds of “physician” messages could actually be handled by office staff. These messages were typically related to hours, availability, insurance coverage, consultant phone numbers, or other back office functions. Our surgeons found that by including a nurse practitioner or physician assistant could also further reduce the number of “MD-level” messages.

For example, minor concerns regarding wound or incision appearance, follow-up timing, suture removal, or questions from visiting nurses were all routinely and commonly handled by the midlevel provider. The exact nature of each question was handled in accordance with physician comfort and expectations. Ultimately, the number and quality of the messages that were directed to physicians were important, timely, and appropriate which led to fewer ED visits, sameday appointments, and phone calls.

#2 – Mobile. Physicians who are able to read, review, and send messages from their mobile device were able to find a considerable amount of “lost” time in their day. Physicians are constantly on-the-move: between patients, rounding, to the hospital and back, to lunch and back, on the elevator, etc. We found that these “micro-minutes” in each day added considerable effectiveness to mobile messaging. As discussed in #1, physician messages were already screened to be important and relevant and so a timely response is indicated. Physicians were able to answer these questions on-the-fly, leading to further confidence in the system on behalf of the patients and fewer voicemails or messages to return at the end of each day.

#3 – Voicemail. Voice messages are the bane of nearly every provider’s life. They are difficult to understand, slow, and take considerable time to review, record, and answer. Through points #1 and #2, the volume and frequency of voicemails decline considerably. The top competitor to patient portals and secure messaging is the phone. It’s universally understood, easy to use, and an immediate response is obtained. Only when patients have an easy to use portal that they can easily access anywhere (and from any device), send a secure message with confidence that it will be reviewed by the provider in a timely manner, and rewarded with a response will patients choose a new system. That’s exactly what our experience has been and there’s absolutely no reason that this cannot be replicated on a national scale.

Whether secure patient email (and ultimately our healthcare legislation) is a failure or a success relates to the patient and provider experiences and our ability to create a harmonious interplay of accessibility, ease of use, and time.

Zachary Landman, M.D. is the Chief Medical Officer for DoctorBase, a San Francisco mobile health technology company considered to be the leader in mobile cloud-based health messaging services that serves more than ten thousand providers and nearly five million patients. Landman is a former resident surgeon at Harvard Orthopaedics and graduate of University California San Francisco School of Medicine. During his career at the intersection of healthcare, technology, and industry, he has developed interactive online musculoskeletal anatomy modules for medical students, created industry sponsored resident journal clubs, and published numerous peer reviewed articles on imaging and outcomes in spine and orthopaedic surgery. Currently, he is leading the development of DoctorBase’s pioneering patient engagement and automated messaging suite, BlueData.