After Siri launched in 2011, it didn’t take long for people to start asking how they could employ a similar sort of virtual assistant for healthcare. Geoff Parker, a healthcare-focused software engineer who had worked in speech recognition, saw clients’ interest rise and fall due to the high cost of the juvenile technology. In the years since, some healthcare organizations have begun using chatbots to complete simple tasks, such as patient check-ins. Now, more advanced virtual assistants are finally entering the clinic. But what’s the difference between a chatbot and a virtual assistant, anyway?
At their core, virtual assistants and chatbots represent opportunities to smooth health system operations, physician workflows, and the patient experience.
“There’s a really good opportunity to be had, whether it’s improving operations or finding efficiencies, but it really depends on the use case and if there’s the appetite,” said Parker, a healthcare technology director who has written about voice.1
If you ask him, the two technologies share many traits but differ in several critical areas. Even so, they’ll both need to overcome obstacles to fulfill their promise in healthcare.
Comparing Chatbots and Virtual Assistants
In some cases, nothing beyond a slick marketing campaign differentiates a virtual assistant from a chatbot.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Although there’s little agreement over what separates a virtual assistant from a chatbot, Parker has an idea. Each kind of product may use the same underlying technology, enabling users to use voice or text commands to dig up information. The difference lies in their use, he said.
The typical chatbot’s frame of reference is the organization deploying the technology, not the physician or patient. Virtual assistants, on the other hand, revolve around the user.
Health systems and other companies leverage chatbots to help them meet a specific need, like scheduling an appointment or responding to a frequently asked question, Parker said. The technology’s limited scope means it doesn’t need to integrate with everything in a hospital. Connecting to the front desk, an ADT feed, or a single medical device might be enough to get the job done, he added. The chatbot provides information, draws patients in, and automates a burdensome task for the organization.
“It’s there to assist them in what they are doing,” Parker said. “If a user goes outside the parameters of what they’re trying to do, chatbots usually fail.”
Virtual assistants allow for flexibility. Users may interact with the technology to accomplish their personal goals, and the virtual assistant’s scope of capabilities is wider to accommodate that. That’s why a virtual assistant for healthcare may appear idle at the point of care even as it transcribes notes and prepares to pull up patient data upon the physician’s request.
Users also get to set the rules, choosing what virtual assistants can and cannot do and which types of data they may access. In some hospitals, for instance, patients may call upon virtual assistants to call a nurse, change the room temperature, or even power up the TV.
“The assistant works for me, and it does the tasks that I want it to do,” Parker said.
Put another way: If the chatbot is your store clerk, the virtual assistant is your personal shopper.
What to Expect from Chatbots and Virtual Assistants for Healthcare
Despite their differences, virtual assistants and chatbots both have something to offer healthcare organizations and their clinicians and patients.
Conversational voice technology supports querying that isn’t as taxing as text-based searches. Still, many virtual assistants and chatbots also enable the use of text, so users can potentially digest more complex information in their preferred medium. These capabilities may enable clinicians to spend less time trying to surface data in the electronic health record, enable patients to benefit from simpler interactions with clinical and administrative staff, and help health systems to expend fewer resources on the mundane tasks that are essential to the business of healthcare.
But these benefits aren’t yet widespread because chatbots and virtual assistants haven’t yet landed on the radar of many health system executives.
“They’re kind of present, but I’m not sure that they’re necessarily a strong driver of focus,” Parker said. “They’re more on the interesting technology side.”
Larger, more innovative health systems are using virtual assistants and chatbots. Their success stories could drive greater adoption across the industry, but that won’t happen because of the technology, Parker said. Virtual assistants and chatbots will become more prominent because of what the technology can potentially do.
Can a solution someday reduce clinician burnout or raise patient satisfaction scores? How about its effects on diagnoses, care team collaboration, and administrative staffing levels? If a virtual assistant eventually proves itself in many or all of those areas, it will be hard for health system leaders to ignore.
Even so, Parker warned, health systems might also be wary of technologies that reduce burden on one group of employees, like clinicians, and increase it for another, like IT staff.
Many virtual assistants and chatbots remain primitive, Parker said. He said they must begin to learn more adeptly, not only through artificial intelligence but also user feedback, and take steps to calm privacy concerns.
These technologies have already secured a place in our lives. It’s rare to visit any commercial website without encountering a chatbot. And as of this year, more than 4.2 billion virtual assistants have made their way into consumers’ hands. So, if clinicians and patients are using tools like Alexa in their personal lives, it’s no stretch to envision them adopting similar technologies in the exam room.2
“It’s a matter of when, not if, these tools and technologies will come in,” Parker said.
1. “How Voice Technology Will Impact Healthcare.” MachineDesign, 6 Aug. 2018, https://www.machinedesign.com/automation-iiot/article/21837004/how-voice-technology-will-impact-healthcare. Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.
2. “Number of digital voice assistants in use worldwide from 2019 to 2024.” Statista, 23 Sept. 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/973815/worldwide-digital-voice-assistant-in-use/. Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.