The Rise of Chat in Healthcare and Remaining Concerns

This blog was originally published in Healthcare IT Today, click here to read.

Hybrid Chat Facilitates Hands-On Patient Interaction and Eases Administrative Burden through Automation

Chat technology is beginning to be embraced by healthcare organizations to better serve patients, reduce staff burnout, increase internal efficiencies, and improve the overall patient experience. Although widely used in many other industries, its adoption is just beginning to take off in healthcare. In fact, as healthcare leaders increasingly prioritize patient access, chat’s success in other businesses has spurred the rapid onboarding of chat solutions to help address healthcare-specific engagement and accessibility challenges. Most importantly, consumers prefer online chat and support its adoption: According to Salesforce, 86% of customers would rather get answers from a chatbot than fill out a website form.

However, despite online chat’s growing popularity, some healthcare organizations are slower to adopt these solutions into their operations. Whether citing the challenges of limited staff time to onboard new solutions, or concerns around punting patient engagement to automated systems, some healthcare leaders are still dragging their feet when it comes to chat adoption. 

To set the scene, it’s important to define what chat in healthcare actually is: “Chat” can refer to any of a set of online, digital access technologies that can be deployed at clinics, hospitals and provider offices. It can be a fully automated matter, as in the case where organizations implement chatbots to address certain common patient questions (company hours, directions, insurance details, etc.). In other cases, a chat solution might involve the use of live online Q&A with administrative or clinic staff. Perhaps most promisingly, hybrid chat technology allows clinicians to custom configure solutions that automate responses on certain topics and intelligently defers to live staff on other inquiries.

The good news is that the more healthcare leaders understand about the value of an online chat tool, the faster they adopt and put these patient engagement solutions in place. Consumer behavior and patient preferences are increasingly driving the implementation of chat, and healthcare leaders are slowly overcoming previous misconceptions about this solution. Here’s a brief overview of some concerns healthcare leaders have legitimately had in the past about chat and a look at the smart way technology solutions and organizations are addressing those concerns today.

Understanding Technological Limits

Practice and organizational leaders today mostly recognize that chatbots help them realize many administrative benefits. A recent JMIR study found that 78% of physicians approve the use of chatbots for scheduling doctor appointments, 76% for locating health clinics, and 71% for providing basic information. Analysts who study the effect of technology on healthcare revenues have regularly found that chatbots provide more efficient patient self-service, better patient engagement, easy scalability of service hours, reduced administrative tasks, better appointment reminders, less hold time for patients, and more efficient ways to handle patient insurance inquiries, recommend wellness programs, and manage care for chronic conditions.  

So, what are the concerns? 

The most prominent worry, rightly placed, is a concern that chatbots might try to do too much, or that patients might imagine them capable of everything. The JMIR study cited above also found that 76% of physicians believe chatbots cannot effectively care for all of the patients’ needs and 72% are troubled that chatbots cannot display human emotion. 71% make clear it’s important to understand that chatbots cannot provide detailed diagnosis and treatment given that they simply can’t know all the personal factors associated with the patient. Chatbots might also be a risk to patients, many physicians thought, if those patients rely on them to self-diagnose too often.

Making Chat Work

As chat has become more advanced, providers are increasingly finding ways to use it for patient acquisition, service, and access, and understand its role in patient care. Chatbots alone provide tremendous efficiencies in automating many tasks— as long as their role is carefully circumscribed, and they are programmed to defer to expert human insight when it’s needed.

Technology partners are ensuring their solutions are fully HIPAA and TCPA compliant, and are implementing advanced features that include:

  • A ‘live chat’ widget that pops up, attracts website visitors, and helps them navigate the site and easily find answers to their questions, reducing call time and administrative burden for simple questions and tasks
  • Inbound messaging that has built in live triage of patient inquiries by routing questions to the right team member at the right time—where they can interact with real humans
  • Departmental routing that moves an inbound message or question from the front desk to the right clinic specialty staff, billing department, or between specialty groups within the same organization (not dependent upon location) while still providing a seamless patient experience
  • Auditing that allows staff to monitor real-time patient conversations and records conversational history in chat with audit trails that can be integrated into provider notes or EHR records

Hybrid chat is being adopted by healthcare organizations all over the country, including the Iowa Heart Foundation, The Vancouver Clinic, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, US Oncology, and many more. EmergeOrtho, the 6th-largest physician-owned independent orthopedic practice in the U.S., with 45 outpatient offices employing more than 270 providers in North Carolina, recently adopted a hybrid chat solution as its ‘digital front door’ and achieved impressive results: Reduced call volume/abandoned call rate, improved patient satisfaction, reduced complaints, better quality control, and significant time savings. 

Big Room for Growth 

Chat technologies provide dozens of ways organizations can improve internal administrative workflows and increase patient satisfaction.

Better automation and quicker problem resolution for patients makes a significant difference demonstrating competitive differentiation for providers. According to an Accenture survey, in 2021, 25% of patients switched providers because they were unhappy with their overall experience (including scheduling challenges and roadblocks to access) —up from 18% in 2017. Younger generations are nearly six times more likely to switch providers than older people are.

The most successful realizations in increased savings, added efficiencies, and higher patient satisfaction today, seem to be at practices that have taken the time to prioritize the patient experience by implementing tools to help improve a patient’s access to care. Particularly for larger practices, the addition of a live chat solution as part of the equation is a critical component. Patients often want true provider/staff connection and not just an automated chatbot. Taking this hybrid approach can quell provider fears about patients missing out on a personal touch, while also automating tasks that they see as vital to an organization’s success and to patient engagement.

A strong technology partner will help custom configure the right sort of chat solution for your organization’s unique situation, which may vary by size, number of locations, specialty, and patient demographic. It’s not uncommon for some to find great value in automating just a small percentage of the sort of queries that used to arrive via phone or web form, while others may automate closer to 80% of common tasks. A bit of strategic planning and understanding of pain points and needs upfront pays tremendous dividends.