This article was originally written in 2019, and has been updated in 2021 with recent statistics where available. Many of the issues of aging populations, loneliness, burnout and the distribution of care have only progressed since the start of 2020. We hope you find the below research useful when looking at conversational AI in the modern healthcare setting.

If the US healthcare system went to see its GP, it would be admitted to hospital. 

Our industry can’t train doctors and nurses fast enough to keep up with demand. Just over a quarter (26%) of healthcare workers say they’re burnt out, and 28% are intending to abandon their jobs within the next two years.

To make things more urgent, the Baby Boomer generation is both retiring from the workforce and living longer, meaning the healthcare system is under even more pressure.

By 2030, the 52 million Americans aged over 65 today will reach around 80 million. Sixty percent of Baby Boomers have a medical issue, and the rest of us have a responsibility to make sure they’re well cared for and treated to the best of our abilities—so how are we planning to do that?

We’ve made baby steps in looking to digital technology for answers, with chatbots providing flat responses delivered primarily by text. Unfortunately, only 13% of the US population has a “proficient” level of health literacy, which shrinks to 1% for people over the age of 75. Surely something has to change.

Are AI chatbots the next step in healthcare evolution?

Chatbots like most new technologies have suffered from teething problems. 

A conversation with a healthcare chatbot in 2019…

But beyond their current lapses in functionality, many actively dislike using them (particularly the older generations):

  • More than half of all chatbot users last year said they prefer speaking to a real person.
  • A growing issue, a year earlier, a lower 43% of people admitted to preferring interaction with a real person.
  • Only 38% of Baby Boomers who’ve used a chatbot rate it as even a “good experience” (45% with millennials)
  • Only 29% of Baby Boomers say a chatbot is “friendly and approachable” (33% with millennials)

And still, the market for healthcare chatbots is growing each year by about 20.5%. 

We get it. Chatbots can help virtually infinite numbers of people at once. They’re convenient, have a low cost per interaction and help healthcare professionals by fielding some of the more mundane, simple-to-answer questions.

But our elderly loved ones having a chatbot as their primary care-giver? It’s easy to start thinking: is this the best we can do?

For one, not everyone can use a chatbot. Almost three in four people over 65 years of age say they need help when using new digital tools and devices. Seniors with disabilities are also less likely to use digital assets like the internet and mobile devices. 

And yet we’re telling them to have a written conversation with an online chatbot because it’s the best way to access healthcare? That’s the first issue.

Loneliness is compounding the problem

So far, we’ve only mentioned the functional problems around making people use chatbots; we’ve not yet touched upon the problem with ‘bots lacking an emotional connection with patients. 

As people age and their interpersonal networks shrink, we become more lonely. Some elderly people admit to seeing the doctor for this very reason. 

Staggeringly, more than three in four GPs say they see between one and five lonely people a day. Can chatbots satiate that need for emotional interaction? Again, only a quarter of Baby Boomers say chatbots are “friendly”. When you take interpersonal care away, loneliness gets worse.

And with loneliness comes a greater healthcare burden. Loneliness in Baby Boomers is similar to drinking more than six alcoholic beverages or smoking up to 15 cigarettes each day research shows.

The effect of loneliness on healthcare.

Enough bad news; what can we do to help?

Chatbots are an evolution in the convenience and digitization of healthcare, but we should be looking beyond this single step and aiming to take a massive bound in improving healthcare. The stats show we desperately need to do it.

Before we touch on a better idea for digitally automating healthcare, let us preface it by saying the issues affecting the healthcare industry are numerous and complex. Like in real life, there’s no panacea. However, healthcare chatbots can improve by improving the interface.

Digital humans can take what a chatbot would usually deliver — a text interface — and turn it into a ‘face-to-face’, personalized conversation. It sounds simple, but a digital human interface can simulate the aspects of human touch, conversation and empathy that’s quickly becoming missing in digital healthcare.

Like chatbots, digital humans have infinite scalability and low cost to serve. Unlike chatbots, however, digital humans have a face. Expressive faces: empathy with a patient’s problem, warmth when someone’s feeling distressed or happiness that treatment is working. They’re also voice-led (like humans!), so those who struggle to interact with computers, or have dexterity and other accessibility issues, can use the most time-tested user interface we have: the human face.

In many cases, a digital human can displace the need for an actual person if the patient is truly only in need of conversation — if they’re lonely.

UneeQ’s cognitive architect, Piers Smith, recently wrote about why we give faces to artificial intelligence. As humans, we’re hardwired to seek emotional connection. 

We build effective trust when we have an emotional bond to another; we trust they’ll look after us because they care. This is the kind of trust patients currently have with their doctors, and study after study shows people can trust AI in the same way.

Cognitive trust is different: it’s the trust we have that another will merely be competent. Cognitive trust is about the best a chatbot can hope to achieve. 

To understand how much better digital human healthcare practitioners can be over chatbots, just take a look at this video:

Healthcare digital humans are unique

Digital human conversational AIs in healthcare fulfills a role that is unthinkable in today’s market—on-demand, no-cost medical conversation and in-take.  

The digital human serves the patient as part of their existing health insurance without an increase in cost, because the organization will realize a DECREASE in cost by deploying the digital human. Increased customer satisfaction and decreased operational costs are a rarity in any industry, but most especially in healthcare.

A digital human isn’t a chatbot so much as virtual concierge, advocate, scheduling assistant, Q&A facilitator and much more.

A digital human cannot forget an answer to a question, it cannot give incorrect information (because its conversation can be carefully curated), and it remains consistent in an industry where patients are often handed off between medical professionals, in some cases many times within the same hour.

The diagnosis on the healthcare industry isn’t a new one, but it does identify a malady that’s growing and spreading quickly. If we don’t do something today, we’ll need to work harder to fix it tomorrow.

At the moment, the sector might not need drastic surgery but some serious care and attention to bring it back to fighting fitness. 

Chatbots are a positive step; the start of an evolution. But we can also look to conversational AI technologies like digital humans to wrap around chatbot knowledge with soft skills and sensory awareness. On their own, chatbots aren’t the treatment the industry needs — nor, to be frank, what our elderly deserve.

INFOGRAPHIC: Easing the healthcare burden with AI-powered digital human technology