Everywhere I go lately I hear people chatting about chatbots. It seems that every health organization is preparing to launch a chatbot service or at least has it on their roadmap. Once I noticed this trend, I keep asking the people I meet about their "bot strategy" and thus having my own small contribution to the trend.
There are countless cases where a digital personal assistant or a chatbot could help physicians, nurses, patients or their families. From assistance in simple routine tasks like finding a doctor or scheduling an appointment, to better organization of patient pathways, medication management, help in emergency situation and offering a solution for simpler medical issues.
The general idea behind the buzz is that in the future, these talking or texting smart algorithms might become the first contact point for primary care. Patients will not get in touch with caregivers directly for health questions but will turn to chatbots first. Only in case the bot can not provide adequate assistance, it will transfer the case to a real-life doctor.
As a skeptic technologist, I am a bit uncomfortable with this buzz. Chatbot is just a computer program designed to carry on a dialogue with people. It can be as smart or as dumb as the developer makes it. Chatbot only replaces web pages or application screens with text. That's it. There is nothing it can do which a simple standard app cannot do. The fact that chatbots do not require a computer screen and present themselves as humans should not give them extra credit from a technological perspective.
The ability to provide a service in a dialogue manner is, however, a valuable asset. It is more natural for us humans and aligns with the way we communicate in our daily life.
But the real value is the ability to operate almost everywhere. Since small or no screen is required, chatbots can be used to consume healthcare services in ways not possible before. For example, over a virtual assistance agent like Siri or over your favorite messaging platform like WhatsApp and Telegram, we use to communicate with our friends.
The way I see it, chatbots are really all about increasing connectivity. But we cannot overlook this advantage. After all, "It's just about increasing connectivity" is what they used to say about the Internet in its early days...