As health systems ramp up their COVID-19 vaccination programs, they’re tasked with not only administering the vaccines, but also answering a barrage of questions from patients.
Emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and natural language processing, are helping some hospitals manage that.
Novant Health has been adding COVID-19 vaccine information corralled by the system’s medical experts to a web chatbot. The Winston-Salem, N.C.-based system started vaccinating healthcare workers in December and patients age 75 and older in January. But patient groups across the board have had questions.
“We want to provide that information to them from a trusted source,” said Amber Fencl, senior director of product development at Novant.
The chatbot, a product from AI startup Hyro, is essentially a virtual assistant that can pull up answers to about 100 vaccine-related questions.
Novant’s chatbot is updated weekly with information developed by an in-house group of infectious-disease, pharmacy, patient education and other staffers, who are tasked with answering new questions and revising responses based on emerging evidence.
The chatbot has received more than 8,000 messages related to the vaccine since Novant began adding that information Dec. 22.
To engage patients proactively, DuPage Medical Group has deployed a text- and email-based education campaign to get a better sense of how patients feel about the vaccine. The Downers Grove, Ill.-based medical group in late December sent its first set of text and email messages to patients as part of the campaign. It started sending the second round of messages in early January.
“Our goal with our first message that we sent out just before the Christmas holiday was to just address the concerns that we knew people were having after hearing about the vaccine in the media,” said Maria McGowan, DuPage Medical’s senior vice president of marketing. Future messages will have more detailed information, such as outlining Illinois’ planned vaccination phases.
DuPage Medical is sending these messages to all patients who have given the medical group permission to communicate with them via text message or email; it’s not only for patients who have reached out with a specific question. Messages are coordinated through Upfront Healthcare, a patient engagement tool DuPage Medical has used for the past year and a half, and customized based on patients’ ages, health conditions and occupations.
One-third of patients cited healthcare providers as the most trusted source of COVID-19 vaccine information, according to a survey from market research firm Harris Poll conducted on behalf of healthcare communications company Updox. That ranked providers as the No. 1 trusted source of vaccine information, ahead of health protection agencies (32%) and government entities (9%).
To maintain that trust among patients, it’s important for health systems to ensure messaging is well-researched and consistent across the organization, whether a patient is reaching out to a call center, a chatbot or looking at a website, said Aloha McBride, global health leader at consulting firm EY. She expects chatbots, in particular, to stick around after COVID-19.
Since a chatbot is automated, it’s available to quickly answer questions 24/7 without a health system having to hire more staffers for a hotline or call center. That said, health systems should ensure there’s a clear process in place to ask patients whether the chatbot has answered their question, and if not, to direct the patient to an actual human being to discuss in more detail.
A chatbot is better than something like a “frequently asked questions” webpage, even if it’s sharing the same information, said Dr. Hal Paz, CEO of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. That’s because, with a chatbot conversation, patients don’t have to waste time searching a website for whatever piece of information they’re looking for.
Wexner is adding vaccine information to a COVID-19 chatbot it launched in April of last year, which it built using a service from Microsoft Corp. It’s not the only part of Wexner’s communication strategy, Paz stressed, but it provides another avenue for information that’s also delivered via email, Wexner’s website and through webinars.
It’s important to be “communicating over, and over, and over again, and using multimodality communication,” Paz said. “Ensure accessibility of the information.”
Correction: The article previously misstated the date Novant Health started vaccinating healthcare workers.