AI-driven chatbots are poised to make a major impact on healthcare — and it’s going to happen a lot sooner than you think.
Right now, AI-driven technologies are disrupting nearly every industry on the planet — not to mention our day-to-day lives. Voice-controlled gadgets and platforms like Alexa, Siri, and Google Home are becoming increasingly popular across the globe; streaming services like Netflix and Spotify use machine learning algorithms to make content suggestions based on our personal preferences; Google just rolled out a new “smart reply” function for Gmail that analyzes our emails and suggests custom, 2-3 word responses to help us keep on top of our inboxes while we’re on-the-go.
But many experts believe that of all the areas that AI stands to make an impact in during the coming years, healthcare may in fact be the most ripe for disruption. While the applications for AI in the medical industry are wide-ranging — from algorithms that process search engine queries to predict epidemic outbreaks to advanced image-recognition technologies that can identify cancerous skin growths — I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz recently around one AI-driven technology in particular: chatbots.
What Are Chatbots?
Put simply, chatbots are AI programs that you can interact with via text. eCommerce sites have been using chatbots for years, helping guide consumers along the path to purchase, answering questions and making suggestions along the way. However, as the technologies driving chatbots have become increasingly sophisticated, so too have their applications. For example, today chatbots can help you troubleshoot a problem with your internet service, act as your personal concierge, or even provide legal advice.
Helping Patients, Helping Doctors
These chatbot platforms are emerging at the very moment the medical industry is experiencing an unprecedented paradigm shift. Throughout history, the doctor-patient relationship has remained largely the same: patient gets sick, goes to see a doctor, explains symptoms, doctor provides advice and/or treatment. However, the internet has fundamentally changed the nature of this relationship forever. In light of the “now economy,” patient expectations are changing — they’re expecting constant access to their doctors, and they often book appointments for “illnesses” (likely self-diagnosed online) that don’t actually necessitate an in-person examination.
As a result, doctors are finding themselves increasingly strapped for time — and many patients with more serious conditions are suffering as a result.
According to some experts, chatbots may represent a potential solution to these kinds of problems. Dyllan Furness, writing for DigitalTrends.com, points to a London-based startup, Your.MD, that’s developing an AI-driven platform designed to “answer a patient’s questions like a doctor can.”
Furness writes, “Your.MD claims it has already built the largest ever medical map linking probabilities between symptoms and conditions. Its chatbot uses machine-learning algorithms and natural-language processing to understand and engage its users.” Your.MD refers to its technology as “pre-primary care guidance” — in other words, it’s designed to help patients make more accurate self-diagnoses.
What Does the Future Really Hold?
As Furness points out, some physicians are skeptical about chatbots. In an interview published in the MIT Technology Review, Dr. Clare Aitchison says, “While it’s true that computer recall is always going to be better than that of even the best doctor, what computers can’t do is communicate with people … People describe symptoms in very different ways depending on their personalities.”
“Either [the AI] will be too sensitive and result in increased attendance at the doctor’s, in which case there isn’t much point to it, or it won’t be sensitive enough and will result in missed serious diagnoses.”
Personally, I don’t think this is an “either/or” scenario. No one is suggesting chatbots are going to replace physicians altogether — at least not anytime soon. Rather, AI should be viewed as a resource for doctors to improve patient engagement, as well as the accuracy of their own diagnoses.