Conversational AI has arrived: Why the timing couldn’t be better

Greg Kefer, chief marketing officer at Lifelink Systems, discusses the future of conversational AI and the effect it can have on healthcare.

According to historians, the wheel was invented sometime around 3500 BC in Mesopotamia. Along with axles, pulleys, and bearings, the wheel fostered a new era of innovation due mostly to the fact that resistance from friction was reduced from the entire surface of an object to a single point on a curve of that same object. Suddenly 14-ton stones could be moved and lifted, which launched early civilizations.

Today, we find ourselves in the midst of the great technological era that’s just getting started. Think about it. In a mere 50 years, technology has evolved from giant machines with mechanical switches and punch cards, to personal computers, to the internet, to the bite-size convenience and power of smartphones.

The iPhone has 100,000 times more processing power than the Apollo Guidance Computer that helped put the first man on the moon. Today, 86% of consumers carry a smartphone in their pocket. That means 6.6 billion people across every region of the world have a smartphone – almost twice as many as there were in 2016.

A world of connected, digitally enabled consumers

If you happen to be traveling in Asuncion, Paraguay, you can locate a local restaurant, assess the experience based on 450 peer reviews, and then summon a car to take you there. If you feel like catching the latest episode of The Mandalorian, you can stream that on the flight home. All on a mobile device the size of a small wallet.

Consumers around the world are now armed with incredible technological power and industries are responding. The travel and leisure sector has transitioned its innovation priorities to delivering mobile-first digital experiences for customers. Retail, banking, shopping, and entertainment are following suit. Healthcare, on the other hand, is still relying on email, paper, phone calls, and websites when it comes to the primary channels for patient engagement. This digital disconnect can create patient dissatisfaction, lead to gaps in care and service, and yield many unnecessary inefficiencies that can drive up costs for all stakeholders.

But it’s not for a lack of trying. There are hundreds of thousands of healthcare mobile apps available on the app stores. Many of them are feature-rich, powerful tools that can help patients navigate their care.

Access isn’t the problem. Friction is. Most apps are too hard for the average person to find, learn and use. This resistance prevents wide-scale digital patient engagement on mobile devices, much like it once kept humans from moving large objects and scaling civilization.

Just as the wheel allowed Mesopotamians to overcome friction, simple conversational artificial intelligence can enable a drastic reduction in resistance to digital patient engagement. Conversational AI can give digital navigators the ability to be the virtual interface between humans and machines, making smartphones accessible and easy for any person, regardless of age, education, race, location, or income. The only prerequisite is the ability to talk and spell.

Conversational AI turns patient smartphones into digital workers

Many businesses are trying to “conversationalize” the way they interact with customers through chatbots and AI assistants, but it’s still early. Yes, Alexa is highly capable of adding a package of AAA batteries to an Amazon shopping cart. But in industries like healthcare, where workflow processes are more complicated and regulated, most open-ended natural language processing (NLP) -based conversational tools are currently relegated to providing basic Q&A or reception desk functionality.

There’s a massive opportunity to point conversational digital assistants at the repetitive, administrative workflows in healthcare that accompany things like seeing the doctor, following up after a visit, or ensuring a prescription is administered properly.

Smart digital navigators reduce friction tremendously, running on native smartphone capabilities, such as SMS messaging and web browsers. They can leverage a phone’s built-in maps, camera, and digital wallet capabilities to support different transactions. There is no need for the patient to download an app, set up an account, pick a password, or overcome any other app-related resistance.

One of the most interesting examples of Conversational AI in action is the virtual waiting room, where a digital navigator connects with a patient in advance of an appointment and handles all of the intake processes and paperwork from the moment the first reminders go out to the moment the patient walks into the exam room. The entire process is handled through interactive messaging and 90% of patients report high satisfaction with the experience.

When Conversational AI interactive messaging acts as the user interface for these tasks, the phone essentially becomes a healthcare worker. And that has massive implications for the long-term viability of our healthcare system. Once upon a time, there were enough human workers to handle these types of patient communications and support, but no more. The COVID-19 pandemic turned a challenging healthcare labor situation into a staffing crisis.

There are countless examples where conversational digital navigators can provide the patient engagement scale that healthcare providers desperately need. And it’s something that patients want, so let’s add healthcare to the mix.

And the best part is, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel to pull it off. The technology is here, proven, and ready to roll.

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