How chatbots and robots can fill healthcare's unmet needs

Triage and patient engagement chatbots are on the rise, but speakers at the upcoming Connected Health Conference are describing additional implementations viable in the near future.
By Dave Muoio
03:52 pm
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Among patients and providers alike, bots are beginning to make their mark on healthcare.

Supported by advancements in natural language processing and artificial intelligence, the technology is seeing an increasing variety of implementations. These range from text-based reception and customer service chatbots — for instance Novo Nordisk’s Sophia, which the company recently told MobiHealthNews has fielded more than 11,000 conversations and 27,000 questions since launching a few months back — to the patient triage and symptom checking offered by Babylon Health and Buoy Health, respectively.

But these aren’t the only ways in which bots can play a role in care. At next month’s Connected Health Conference in Boston, keynotes and roundtables will discuss novel uses for these technologies that could be feasible within the next several years.

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Personality-driven chatbots for families

A terminal diagnosis is a burden for patients as well as their loved ones. While healthcare has a clear role in providing physical comfort and therapies to the patients, many families will also require emotional support during and after the final days.

“Currently, everything is so medically focused and intervention focused, and if you’re fighting a losing fight with a disease like cancer, it’s frustrating to have all of your time and energy poured into a battle you’re going to lose,” James Vlahos, a writer for Wired and a keynote speaker at the Connected Health Conference, told MobiHealthNews. “I remember [when my father was dying] I got just one handout from hospice about sitting down with someone and asking about their lives. I think it would be a really valuable role for healthcare to kind of step up to helping with the ‘coping with death process.’"

When his father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2016, Vlahos had already been working with him on a recorded oral history project. Using a tool developed by PullString, a conversational computing technology company founded by Pixar alums, he decided to repurpose those recordings into a text and audio chatbot defined by his father’s personality — Dadbot.

“[The project] gave me almost this excuse to engage with my dad, his whole life story, to know that it was ending and look at it all, and to do it in an intentional way and not just be consumed with only medical appointments, the tests, the chemotherapy, and all that,” Vlahos said. “It’s a useful and valuable process, in that way. The creation of something like this forced me to engage more equally than if I was just sitting back as a static listener to him telling a story since I was now trying to recreate him, in a sense.”

Vlahos, who detailed his experience creating the bot in a feature for his publication, admitted that the manual programming-intensive process he followed to create the bot was extremely time consuming, and as such unfeasible for the average person. However, that hasn’t stopped people from expressing their interest in the idea for their own loved ones.

“I had people from all over the world reaching out to me asking ‘Could you create this for my dying relative?’ or ‘Could you create this for me because I’m in bad health?’ There seems to be a pretty intense demand for memorializing bots,” he said. “At the very moment, there’s not a commercially available product that would allow people to do this. It took months of labor on my part to create this thing, but I think it’s one of those near-term future technologies — it’s more of a two-to-five-year window.”

Robots in the home

Continued advancements in AI and related tools are helping bring the more traditional concept of a physical care robots into reality, but the real challenge may be building and deploying them in a cost-effective manner.

“Our ability to envision what’s possible and what we might want to have are often very different than our actual ability to deliver [what is] affordable and has value in the current model today,” Ned Semonite, VP of business development at OhmniLabs and a speaker at the Connected Health Conference, told MobiHealthNews. “We’ve seen tremendous advancements in technology, but doing things a human can do is still very hard. We might all conclude that there are very specific things that could be useful. Bringing them to market is not trivial, so you have to balance the requirements of what people are looking for with the actual business cost of making it a reality and bringing it to market.”

Semonite said that while several of the features and autonomous capabilities most would hope for in their physical in-home care robots is likely still decades away, there are a number of more recent advancements that are valuable and can be realistically implemented.

“We’re coming at it from a perspective of ‘what can we do now?’ as opposed to the mainstream, 20 years from now [mindset],” he said. “We’re in the process of combining proven communication capabilities, like video chat, with the capabilities to move around remotely, the robotic piece. That person with the robot doesn’t have to control it or know how it works, but now a person can be there with them from a distance, down the street or across the world.”

In addition to these, Semonite also said that these home robots can also serve as the physical interface for numerous digital technologies and interventions, such as socialization chatbots or cognitive exercises for lonely seniors. Further, because the growing number of seniors and chronic disease patients is continuing to drive demand for new in-home and consumer-facing care tools, he suspects that hardware-based AI will likely play an increasing role in the industry alongside their software-driven predecessors.

“All of this is demonstrable today, but it’s just not at the point where you can deliver it affordably,” he said. “But something where a robot could be used not only for someone to visit or deliver AI-based applications, but simple things like clean your toilet or prepare your dinner and actually like a helper.”

Vlahos will be giving his keynote “Artificial Immortality: Letting My Dad Live Forever” on Oct. 19 at 8:15 p.m. Semonite will be speaking on the “Bots for Socialization and Care Delivery: Exploring the Limits of Bot-Human Interaction” panel on Oct. 18 at 2:40 p.m.

Connected Health Conference

Join PCHAlliance and the Partners Connected Health Symposium in Boston Oct. 17-19.

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