Consumers are becoming increasingly accustomed to logging onto their favorite websites only to encounter chatbots — a program that interacts automatically with a user and draws on knowledge learned from a database to converse with a human.

There's really no escaping chatbots these days...or for the foreseeable future. Developers have launched more than 33,000 Facebook Messenger chatbots since April 2016. What's more, 80% of brands across industries will be using chatbots for customer interactions by 2020, according to research conducted by Oracle.

Healthcare applicability
Do chatbots have a place in healthcare? Can the technology stand up in a field intricately linked with protected health information (PHI)?

Toby Coppel, whose Mosaic Ventures firm is investing $140 million in companies “fundamentally reshaping big markets," thinks so, and predicts bots potentially triaging common conditions and sending more difficult cases on to human doctors.

Given their success in other industries, it's only a matter of time before healthcare organizations will see the benefit of leveraging chatbots' abilities to quickly process diverse types of data (e.g., medical images and clinical trial applications) in high volume. Even more appealing is the probability of chatbots integrating with artificial intelligence and machine learning to become “smarter" over time.

Chatbot essentials
With the far-reaching potential of chatbots, it's also important to set reasonable expectations for what chatbots can and should do for healthcare. The following considerations factor into emerging chatbot development and implementation:

  • Positioning. Chatbots won't replace the doctors and nurses who ultimately care for patients. Bots will gather and interpret front-end information, such as age, gender, location, and symptoms; however, making diagnoses without human intervention would be far too risky.
  • Transparency. Consumers shouldn't wonder whether they're talking to a bot or a human, particularly with PHI in the mix. IBM Watson recommends that consumer-facing chatbots include an introduction that makes clear the conversation is bot-based and explains how personal information will be analyzed, saved, and shared. It should also be apparent how the consumer can connect to a human to address concerns not handled by the bot.
  • Purpose. Think about where chatbots will provide the highest return on investment. Popular healthcare chatbots range in function from reminding patients to take medications to offering health tips and prompting users to track their own health metrics.
  • Personalization. Chatbots become effective conversational interfaces when they appeal to consumers as friendly, compassionate, and informative, according to user experience expert Travis Alber. “Every patient's journey through illness and recovery (or even improvements in wellness) is unique and significant to them," Alber explains. “The right tone makes all the difference." A bot should speak directly to the consumer and parse his/her responses as the conversation flows. Response buttons (interspersed with textual comments) help keep things simple and prompt the user for additional information that can be added to the bot's knowledge base for future reference.
  • Compliance. Digital health startup Your.MD discovered when developing its chatbot that people tend to disclose personal information more openly to a bot than to a human caregiver. Your.MD encountered topics such as sexually transmitted diseases and mental health issues commonly being entered by patients. Other chatbot trailblazers report consumers sharing — without prompting — medical histories, even Social Security numbers. That's why chatbot interfaces should clearly specify when and where sensitive information is appropriate. Consider a greeting at the top of the bot that cautions patients not to share PHI. Additionally, chatbot owners must not share conversations without the user's explicit consent. All staff using the technology should be certified on how to properly handle PHI once it has been routed beyond the initial interface. On the back end, data use must comply with all healthcare standards and regulations, including HIPAA.

As chatbots continue to evolve and gain traction, healthcare marketers will leverage the technology as part of an overall strategy of creating engaging consumer experiences. For more on enhancing the online experience, check out our infographic, Putting Together the Personalization Puzzle.