MedCity Influencers, Physicians

The bot will see you now

Using natural-language processing and speech recognition technologies, startups are now creating chat-bots and other apps that can, to a remarkable extent, accurately replicate the experience of chatting with a receptionist or nurse.

Even before the pandemic struck, America’s healthcare workers were struggling. Increasingly, hospitals and clinics are short-staffed. There simply aren’t enough doctors and nurses to go around. In fact, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), we’ll face a shortage of 122,000 physicians by 2032; similar shortages are also forecast for nurses and some auxiliary workers.

Inevitably, such shortages affect patient care. In fact, according to one study, adding just a single patient to a nurse’s workload increases mortality rates by 7%. With 44 million people across the U.S. already living in areas underserved by primary care physicians, this is a critical problem for America’s healthcare systems, and for all of us who rely on them.

Now, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic is making matters worse. The stress of the crisis is driving many overburdened doctors to retire early. With few new med-school graduates willing to work in the rural areas that are hardest hit by personnel shortages, we urgently need to find new ways to do more with less — without sacrificing the quality of care or accepting worse outcomes for patients.

A new approach
Solving these problems will require a multi-pronged strategy, with new approaches to education, recruitment, and retention. But we’ll also need a willingness to embrace new technologies that can streamline healthcare operations, and empower our doctors and nurses to use their time more efficiently.

Fortunately, we’re standing at the cusp of an AI revolution that’s enabling the development of powerful new tools capable of taking over many tasks currently carried out by human doctors and nurses. Using natural-language processing and speech recognition technologies, startups are now creating chat-bots and other apps that can, to a remarkable extent, accurately replicate the experience of chatting with a receptionist or nurse.

Such bots and avatars can be packaged as online tools that serve as a first point of contact for patients seeking information or looking to book an appointment. But they can also be packaged as mobile apps, and combined with telehealth and remote monitoring technologies — including web-connected devices such as blood pressure monitors or other remote sensors — to eliminate the need for clinic visits, or to replicate services provided by home-health aides.

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A Deep-dive Into Specialty Pharma

A specialty drug is a class of prescription medications used to treat complex, chronic or rare medical conditions. Although this classification was originally intended to define the treatment of rare, also termed “orphan” diseases, affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the US, more recently, specialty drugs have emerged as the cornerstone of treatment for chronic and complex diseases such as cancer, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS.

Here are some of the key benefits that digital avatars can bring to healthcare settings:

  • A more streamlined experience. Digital avatars put patients in charge of their own healthcare journey, enabling them to get information faster and giving them 24/7 access to basic resources. That’s better for providers, too: simple tasks can be handled without human intervention, while sophisticated triaging tools can prompt patients to seek human help when necessary.
  • Better compliance. Unlike people, bots never run out of time or energy — so they can spend as long as they need hand-holding, supervising, or simply checking in on individual patients. Patients can be proactively reminded to take drugs, given real-time advice about dosage or other instructions, and monitored to make sure they’re complying with treatment. That, in turn, leads to better outcomes and fewer hospitalizations or clinic visits per patient.
  • Reduced over-use. To do more with less, we need to make sure that patients only go to hospitals or clinics when they genuinely need in-person attention. Digital avatars and related tools can provide patients with instant access to information, giving them much-needed reassurance and ensuring they aren’t needlessly worrying themselves by falling back on “Dr Google.” That means fewer unnecessary clinical visits or ER trips, leaving healthcare providers with more time to treat those who truly need it.
  • Early warnings. Digital avatars are also intended to ensure patients who do need help are able to access it quickly. Using conversational interfaces, biometrics or remote-monitoring data, and AI tools, digital tools can quickly identify patients whose conditions are worsening, or whose symptoms demand prompt attention. By rapidly triaging such patients to human doctors or nurses, apps can ensure they’re treated faster, leading to better outcomes and ultimately fewer doctor-hours per patient.
  • Reduced burden on doctors and nurses. Streamlining, efficiency and better patient outcomes all ultimately help to free up more time for doctors, nurses, and administrative staff. When routine information-gathering and guidance is automatically delivered through digital channels, healthcare professionals can make every moment count, and use their precious time more effectively in areas that truly require a human touch.

Ready to go digital
Historically, healthcare providers have been reluctant to embrace artificial intelligence and related tools. Many doctors and nurses are wary of giving up control of patient interactions or allowing machines to make decisions on their behalf. Patients, too, have expected people, not computers, to take the lead in providing them with first-rate healthcare.

In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, however, those norms are changing. Out of sheer necessity, we’ve seen both patients and doctors embrace innovations such as telemedicine and remote monitoring in record numbers. That has accelerated uptake of these powerful technologies and created a new understanding that digital tech can complement and augment, though never replace, human healthcare providers.

That’s especially true of digital avatars, which — unlike telemedicine tools such as video conferencing — aren’t constrained by the need for a one-to-one doctor-to-patient ratio. Virtual assistants can serve as true force multipliers for our medical workforce, giving us the ability to do more with less as we grapple with continuing personnel shortages.

We won’t be getting our blood drawn by androids or our prescriptions written by vending machines anytime soon. But some routine tasks can be carried out by digital avatars programmed to efficiently and compassionately simulate human interactions. By embracing these tools, we can free up flesh-and-blood healthcare practitioners for the tasks that require their expertise and experience — and empower them to keep delivering world-class healthcare, even in the face of worsening labor shortages.

Photo: venimo, Getty Images

Adam Odessky is the CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based Sensely. He previously led product management and software development for companies including Oracle and Microsoft.

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