Hospital using chatbot to screen coronavirus patients

The chatbot, built with Microsoft services, answers questions from people about potential coronavirus symptoms.

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Providence St. Joseph Health is helping people determine their coronavirus risk with a screening tool built with Microsoft services. The Catholic healthcare system is based in a Seattle suburb and serves patients in six western states. Washington state was one of the first states to see large numbers of cases in the coronavirus outbreak. 

This screening service is similar to the website President Trump described last week at a press conference and what Verily Life Sciences is testing in San Francisco.

The hospital has been working on a chatbot approach to non-life-threatening conditions as part of a platform to allow same-day care delivery. This means making healthcare decisions with input from providers without needing an in-office visit, or deciding whether an in-office visit is necessary. This screening tool could be the first step in a telehealth visit that would allow people to get medical advice during a video visit. 

SEE: Chatbot trends: How organizations are leveraging AI chatbots (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Providence took an existing chatbot and created a new version to help people worried about coronavirus get answers about symptoms without calling physician offices or showing up at the ER. 

Aaron Martin, executive vice president and chief digital officer at Providence, said the hospital has been investing in a chatbot called Grace for more than two years. The service uses a mix of built-in-house technologies along with third-party solutions to help patients with symptom checking.  

Martin said that the digital innovation team had been in talks with Microsoft for the last few months to scale Grace and augment it using Microsoft AI/NLP capabilities. When the coronavirus crisis started, this had to happen much faster. 

"For version 1, we developed the clinical workflow algorithms using Microsoft Health Bot and their Azure services," he said. "We are working on the next versions where we will be leveraging more of natural language processing technologies."

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The chatbot allows patients to answer questions and guides the person to the appropriate next step upon determining whether they are at risk of having a coronavirus infection. If patients need further care, they are sent to Providence Express Care Virtual Visits or other clinically appropriate follow-up.

"When the first COVID-19 patient was brought to Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, WA, we mobilized the product development team in the Digital Innovation Group to work closely with Microsoft Azure and Health Bot teams," Martin said. "Version 1 of the chatbot was up and running with a COVID-19 specific pathway and questions within three days."

As the number of cases of coronavirus grows, screening tools like Grace will be crucial for answering questions about symptoms without requiring an office visit.

"We've been able to keep 'the worried well' out of the hospital and clinics to prevent possible infection, and reserve our capacity and resources for those who are sick and need hospital care," Martin said.

Serving a high demand for information

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This chatbot built with Azure technology answered questions from 40,000 people in the first week of service.

Image: Providence St. Joseph Health

The hospital launched the chatbot with limited traffic to test for scale on March 5 and pushed the service to full deployment on March 8. Martin said more than 80% of the traffic to the services has come from search engines and via referrals from hospital websites and patient portals. He also shared these stats:

  • There are more than 150,000 messages per day between the bot and patient.
  • The bot engagement rate on their COVID-19 advisory page, percentage of people who land on the advisory page and click on the self-assessment bot, is on average over 20%.
  • The bot has served over 40,000 sessions since its launch.

Martin said the digital team is continually updating the content in the bot to reflect the latest clinical evidence and guidance.

"Since the situation is evolving so quickly at the global and national level with new data coming in all the time, we have created a flexible framework so that we can update it with new information as it comes in," he said.

Providence employs 119,000 caregivers in 51 hospitals and 1,085 clinics across Alaska, California, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Martin is also the managing general partner for Providence Ventures, the health system's $300 million fund which invests in early- to mid-stage healthcare technology companies. 

Azure's natural language processing capabilities

Microsoft's Azure Cognitive Services has the capability to build enterprise-grade bots that let companies maintain control of data, including Q&A bots like the one answering coronavirus questions for Providence patients in six states. The service includes open-source SDK and tools to connect a bot across popular channels and devices. Azure Cognitive Services gives the bot the ability to speak, listen, and understand users.

Also see

A middle-aged man who uses telemedicine to listen to a doctor for medication.

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