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How Chatbots Are Helping With COVID-19

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Key Takeaways

  • Penn Medicine designed a chatbot to help answer patient questions about COVID-19.
  • The chatbot is designed to both free up medical staff for more urgent care needs and to help patients get immediate help.
  • Google is helping to make the chatbot publicly available to other healthcare systems.

As medical systems struggle to keep up with calls from patients concerned about COVID-19, Penn Medicine has stepped in with a solution: a chatbot that helps provide immediate answers to questions related to the pandemic.

The chatbot, created as part of a collaboration between Penn Medicine, Google, and life sciences research organization Verily, helps offload call volume from Penn Medicine’s phone lines and shorten wait times for patients who need to speak with a doctor. It's intended to help patients find answers to commonly-asked questions and assesses symptoms, as well as route them to the appropriate care.

Penn Medicine plans to share an open-source version of the chatbot with other health systems through the Google Contact Center AI initiative for free.

The idea for the chatbot started in mid-March when there was an “influx of calls” to primary care offices with a variety of questions about COVID-19 and next steps, Maguire Herriman, an MD/MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who worked on the chatbot, tells Verywell.

“What we found anecdotally and more systematically is that a lot of these questions would fall into general buckets where the same answers would help a lot of people,” he says. “That sparked the idea of the chatbot, rather than having teams of nurses and care providers answer these same questions, to provide more standardized accurate information to people at large.”

Chatbots have grown in popularity throughout the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses a symptom-checker called Clara to answer COVID-19 questions, and Microsoft, IBM, and the World Health Organization (WHO) have also created COVID-19 chatbots.

What This Means For You

While chatbots can be a helpful tool in getting your COVID-19 questions answered, they’re no replacement for an actual medical provider. Don’t hesitate to use a chatbot but, if you feel like you’re not getting the answers you need, call your doctor.

How Does the Chatbot Work?

The chatbot appears on the frequently asked questions section of Penn Medicine’s website. It begins by asking if you want to ask a question or use its symptom-checker. It draws from a database of answers in order to respond, offering answers to questions like "how long is COVID-19 contagious?" to "where can I find testing in my area?"

“Our tool is specific to triaging patients," Elana Meer, an MD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who worked on the chatbot, tells Verywell. "We thought, ‘How can we most appropriately give advice on where you should go with your symptoms?’”

According to Herriman, researchers have analyzed chatbot interactions over time in order to update the database to better reflect the needs of users.

The tool has been beneficial to both patients and healthcare systems, Vindell Washington, MD, chief clinical officer at Verily Health Platforms, tells Verywell.

“One of the biggest problems is trying to manage the high volume of calls,” he says. “The chatbot is a unique opportunity to provide services, help relieve the call center, and help get people better, more timely answers.”

When Is It Important to Talk to a Doctor?

Meer says there should be “intrinsic caution” with using a chatbot.

“These are pre-built algorithms and, while we can adjust them and incorporate as much intelligence into them as we can, they are automated tools,” she says.

Herriman says the team behind Penn Medicine’s chatbot repeatedly ran into a “certain humility” with understanding that chatbots are not as flexible and adaptable as humans are.

“We got a lot of questions from people on whether they should keep taking immunosuppressive medications due to COVID-19 risk,” he says. “The answer is ‘yes,’ but we thought that would be a more nuanced question and that they should talk to their provider. At the same time, there are infinite number of clinical scenarios and in some cases, someone should be talking to a provider.”

Still, healthcare providers recognize chatbots can be a good starting point for patients beginning to navigate their care.

Shital Patel, MD, an assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, says chatbots are helpful for people with mild COVID-19 symptoms who need next steps for taking care of themselves and preventing transmission to others.

“However, if symptoms get worse, new symptoms occur, or a question is not addressed on the chatbot, then next steps can be taken to discuss further with a health professional," she says.

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