Conversational AI Basics in Healthcare

Conversational AI

May 8, 2023
Person starting their medical journey by using a healthcare chatbot

Curious about conversational AI? Here’s what it is and why it matters

Conversational artificial intelligence (AI) is all about mimicking natural and intuitive interactions between humans and machines via voice and text applications. These digital interactions employ advanced AI automation with natural language processing (NLP), machine learning (ML), or speech recognition over voice, chat or text channels to understand and respond to human language in a conversational way. 

An integral part of the digital front door strategy in healthcare, conversational AI-enabled solutions build secure, smooth, personalized and interactive patient experiences, ushering in a new era of customer service that consumers have come to expect. Using various digital services tailored to their needs, patients are comfortable and empowered to ask questions, receive medical information, and complete intake and other tasks more efficiently at their convenience. 

For healthcare providers, conversational AI frees up the time of medical professionals by:

  1. Automating routine administrative tasks, enabling them to focus on other priorities
  2. Answering a wide range of frequently asked queries 
  3. Disseminating  information such as lab test results, patient education, or pre-op surgery instructions
  4. Tracking and identifying symptoms 
  5. Analyzing data in clinical reports  

What Does Conversational AI Look Like in Healthcare? 

Patients interact with a chatbot, a software application powered by AI technology automates time-consuming, repetitive, and routine tasks. Chatbots act as conversationalists capable of simulating natural language (for example, English or Spanish) to interact in a human-like way with multiple people. Chatbots can also incorporate visual aids such as forms, educational documents, and videos to augment a conversation.

In healthcare, chatbots act as “virtual assistants” or “virtual humans.” They proactively engage with patients to offload administrative tasks traditionally handled by physicians, nurses, clinicians, and care team members. If a patient has a complicated problem to resolve, a healthcare employee can take over the chat to assist the individual.

Proven Use Case Successes

With minimal human support, providers can employ conversational AI chatbots day and night to guide patients to perform a series of self-empowering activities, which include:

  • Schedule and change appointments
  • Complete the intake process
  • Prepare for procedures
  • Request prescription refills
  • Communicate test results
  • Review after-visit care summary
  • Arrange video consults
  • Connect with in-network providers
  • Close gaps in care
  • Submit payments

Generating Buy-in

The biggest obstacle to achieving a successful conversational AI-powered digital transformation isn’t about technology ─ it’s helping management and users overcome their fear of change. A 2020 study by Boston Consulting Group found that a staggering 70% of digital transformation projects fall short of their goals — even when leadership is aligned. 

Resistance is a natural response to change, as humans are hardwired to remain in their comfort zone. Employees may also resist the change for fear it will replace them, which makes it imperative to provide reassurance so they’ll embrace the change initiative.    

Taking The Leap 

First Choice Neurology (FCN), the largest U.S. neurology group in Medley, Florida, was hesitant initially to adopt QliqSOFT’s conversational AI secure messaging, virtual visits, and chatbots. But FCN practice leaders “decided to take a leap of faith,” recalled Jose Rocha, FCN’s Director of Corporate Business Office Performance, explaining that “terms like chatbot and AI made people nervous.” 

“I’ve been doing practice management for 20-plus years,” he added. “I can walk into any medical office with my eyes closed and tell you where most things are, no matter the specialty. But this whole AI and chatbot technology is so new. I actually thought a computer science degree was needed.”

In March 2020, FCN kicked off its digital implementation roadmap. The first priority was organizing the digitization of tasks to support its 90 neurologists and other physician specialists working at 45 site locations. FCN considered each practice a care center or department servicing a collective of 230,000 patients and 42 hospitals yearly across five Florida counties. 

a doctor checking a patients pulse in a clinic

Putting Your Staff at Ease

FCN created subgroups and customized chatbots, accommodating each participating specialty practice’s unique digital needs. For example, the practice network’s revenue cycle department leveraged chatbots to collect payments – later credited as a game-changer for increasing revenue. FCN and QliqSOFT built custom-designed chatbots to address each practice’s distinct requirements.

One requirement was individual customization of forms, which for every specialty physician previously meant retaining FCN’s electronic health record (EHR) partner at a cost of approximately $2,000 per form.  “If we wanted to customize certain things, digitizing was probably the closest thing to an act of God,” said Rocha. “We started realizing how easy it was to do all these forms using AI. We moved forward digitizing one office at a time.” 

By the second month of going digital, employees took notice. By the third month, doctors and staff began “boasting about the system and saying how much they liked and appreciated it,” he added. Read the First Choice Neurology success story and webinar on-demand.

Virtua Health: Incorporate Change Management

While digital tools have shown their value in connecting with patients and enabling care, signing a contract to bring new technology into the health system is the easy part. The hard part is changing minds to convince caregivers that the new technology will improve the patient’s experience and their own workflows.

Virtua Health, a nonprofit regional health system serving southern New Jersey and Philadelphia, was especially cognizant of the challenges to deploying AI across their large system, which includes five hospitals, seven emergency departments, eight urgent care centers, and more than 280 other locations. The health system staffs over 14,000 people, including more than 2,800 physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners.

Acknowledging that change can be difficult, Virtua started by adopting new processes, an undertaking akin to altering the course of an ocean liner using only oars. Their digital team leaders noted that implementing new technology represents 15% of the total challenge, with the change management component encompassing the remaining 85%.

Virtua Health’s Adoption Journey

The key to Virtua’s digital transformation success began with finding two to three champions who recognized the value of the change of AI and its potential to transform processes. Calling them “viral adopters,” digital team leaders relied on them to generate enthusiasm about the new technology or process, answer questions, and help assuage any fears or doubts.

Support from the C-suite came into play for those who didn’t immediately buy in. Storytelling with data became crucial when describing the importance and impact of a project and how it supported the strategic imperative to make Virtua the community’s provider of choice. Consistency in messaging was also critical to enact new processes and workflows. The overarching governance model provided the support necessary to effect change, bolstered by internal relationships and the common desire to continually improve. Read the Virtua Health success story.

For more information on effective governance strategies in support of digital transformation, listen to Virtua Health’s podcast with Divurgent CEO Ed Marx. This 30-minute webinar podcast features best practices, customizable governance models, and Q&A with the industry’s most revered IT leaders. 

a person giving a five star rating for the chatbot they just used

7 Best Practices for A Successful Conversational AI Implementation in Healthcare

The following seven best practices will help you create an effective chatbot that meets provider, staff, and patient expectations for convenience, speed, and simplicity. Before starting this journey, be aware that the most common hurdles can be addressed before implementation; for example, potential use cases outside the norm can be identified upfront to resolve foreseeable issues and reduce friction. 

  1. Prioritize. Do not boil the ocean. Pick meaningful projects that have champions and size them to deliver quick wins that build support for the program. Consider having an internal support team that can drive projects and support the team members in delivering services.

  1. Implement. Take an agile approach to innovation, launch projects that are 100% clinically relevant and sound while the technology and related processes may only be 80%-90% completed, and iterate as you learn to refine the solution.

  1. Measure and monitor: 
  • Storytelling with data is crucial when describing the importance and impact of a project and how it supports the strategic imperatives. Quantify the problem, quantify the results, and perform post-change monitoring to hold the gains.
  • Ensure that executives closely track a few meaningful data points across the organization instead of trying to keep up with all of them.
  • Require departments to track their specific operational metrics to hold the gains, e.g., celebrate wins and analyze challenges to determine the changes needed to maximize success.

  1. Expand. Find the next project, the next champions, and metrics ─ and repeat again and again.

  1. Be realistic. Expect 85% change management and 15% technology tools. As you are selecting the technology:
  • Look for flexibility and the ability to support many different needs.
  • Minimize the number of solutions to enable a consistent patient experience. In doing so, select a partner who can flex and solve many types of problems.
  • Look for helpful self-service tools that can move beyond initial, common use cases and personalize your organization’s needs.

6. Expect to see immediate results. Digitizing manual processes delivers immediate impact. But recognize that optimizing process, policy, and technology are the norm after go-live along with the need to plan for a period to make changes based on acquiring new knowledge.

7. Select a partner that focuses on results. Pre- and post-measures are critical to highlighting success and identifying where you can continue to improve performance even better to have the most impact.

Let’s explore some helpful applications in the practice environment where conversational AI can make a difference:

Decrease No Shows and Improve Patient Access

One Southern California health system demonstrated how conversational AI can offload work from staff and provide a higher level of patient support pre-procedure by engaging individuals more constructively in their preparation. 

In 2023, an estimated 106,970 cases of colon cancer and 46,050 cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S., and a total of 52,550 people will die from these cancers. Recognizing that patient education and health literacy play a key role in bowel prep, the health system turned to QliqSOFT to co-develop affordable, custom Quincy chatbots to engage recently scheduled patients pre-procedure. 

A series of six conversational AI-powered chatbots were personalized and timed to when the patient needed educational information to take action before the colonoscopy appointment, resulting in:

  • Reduced no-shows by 36%
  • Helped ensure every single patient arriving at their colonoscopy appointment was prepared and saved over 6 minutes per patient of staff time
  • 56% of patients engaged with at least one chatbot on their smartphone 
  • 94.4% of patients were satisfied or very satisfied with the reminders

With the right engagement strategies, conversational AI technologies can be a powerful ally in achieving the Quadruple Aim:

  • Enhanced patient experience ─ surveyed patients are satisfied with reminders
  • Lower costs ─ decrease in patient no-shows 
  • Improved clinical experience ─ chatbots deliver savings by offloading basic education
  • Better outcomes ─ a reduction in backlog expands patient population screenings for cancer; more educated patients can manage their health more effectively


Appointment Scheduling and Digital Intake 

In December 2020, First Choice Neurology (FCN) implemented QliqSOFT’s patient communications suite to improve communications between providers and patients. Patients use Quincy secure messaging, chatbots, and virtual visits to complete check-in forms and access test results. They also use chatbots to discuss pre- and post-visit clinical concerns and outcomes with physicians or other clinical staff.

These self-service features reduce patient wait times. Patients often arrive late, with paperwork further delaying appointments and causing crowded waiting areas, often for patients who have compromised immune symptoms—not to mention frustrating patients and stressing care teams. Staff now coordinate patient outreach activities, set up auto-reminders to schedule visits or pick up prescriptions, escalate concerns to doctors, forward required documentation to patients traveling internationally, remotely monitor a patient’s condition, and much more.

Over the last three years, FCN has reaped the following benefits from its practices using the QliqSOFT self-service tools:

  • Within 10 months of implementation, FCN experienced a return on investment (ROI) greater than 10 times over. 
  • By streamlining workflows and reducing administrative burdens caused by inefficient manual patient intake, FCN removed 18 minutes per patient, improving patient satisfaction while reducing office staff overtime by 18%. 
  • By streamlining physician workflows, the practice saved 8 to 10 minutes per patient visit—without compromising care quality. Those time savings equated to 2 or 3 additional patient appointments per day at select practices, increasing revenue by 24%. 
  • Physicians also have the option to take that time back in their day to improve work-life balance. In small offices, digital check-in replaced one FTE at each location.
  • Embracing the digital offerings, 81% of patients rated the medical group 4.8 on a 5.0-point scale.

Symptom Checking

Healthcare providers are implementing AI-based online and wearable symptom checkers to help patients self-diagnose possible conditions, receive healthcare advice, and triage to the appropriate level of care. Some use conversational AI-based chatbots in a friendly, conversational format to stimulate a texting conversation that questions the patient on specifics related to their condition.

pharmacist using tablet to get instructions from a chatbot

Speed Time to Dispense for Specialty Medications

As specialty pharmacies become an increasing growth and cost management focus, hospitals,
health systems, independently owned pharmacies, and other organizations must quickly embrace advanced AI-powered digital solutions. These game-changing tools dramatically improve care coordination throughout the complex medication management process to simplify the patient’s outpatient drug regime and ensure medication adherence and optimal outcomes.

Numerous areas destined for digital automation include, but are not limited to:

  • Eliminating high-cost specialty medication waste throughout the course of therapy via
    preset time stamped delivery coordination
  • Streamlining operational workflows and throughput
  • Improving medication adherence by proactively engaging patients through their preferred communication channel
  • Reducing telephone calls

QliqSOFT can help you support outbound outreach communications using chatbots connecting the patient, provider, and specialty pharmacy team as follows:

  • Self-service options (digital and interactive voice response): Enhance the patient experience by offering easy 24/7 online tools that provide abilities to request a prescription refill, upload an updated insurance card, or conduct an on-demand virtual visit to address problems such as side effects.
  • Patient campaigns. Create and disseminate awareness campaigns via a custom chatbot to target groups for refill notifications and reminders and to capture both the request and the need to probe or escalate the patient’s reason or inaction for non-adherence.
  • Remote patient monitoring. Schedules regular patient check-ins and escalates non-completed questions requiring answers to the appropriate pharmacist for follow-up.
  • Integrate pharmacy distribution with delivery companies. Support remote package special handling and customer service requirements.
  • Capture digital signatures. Patients, providers, and pharmacists can electronically sign important documents when needed and avoid slowing down drug distribution. 
  • Integrate into the organization’s pharmacy system. Extend your patient outreach further by automating routine outbound communications.
  • Patient satisfaction surveys. Stay in close contact with patients during treatment, soliciting feedback to fast-track addressing concerns or questions. 
  • Patient education. Share downloadable hyperlinks to helpful education resources, content, and videos to supplement and reinforce staff-provided care and medication education to drive patient adherence and overall health.
  • Respond to patient questions quickly. Deploy chatbots to respond to a patient’s questions concerning therapy onboarding, prescription refills, etc., at all hours of the day or night.

Download our “Digitizing the Specialty Medication Process to Connect and Engage Patients” white paper for more information.

Reduce Hospital Readmissions With Remote Patient Monitoring

Chatbots can help reduce the risk of readmission. For its heart failure use case, QliqSOFT’s Quincy chatbot checks remotely on the post-discharge patient to ensure the follow-up appointment is made, medication reorders are filled and consumed to comply with medication adherence, and the patient has no symptoms requiring attention. 

This is a great example of a conversational AI chatbot to take your provider organization to the next level of customer service. Integrate chatbots into campaigns to monitor patient transitions of care and identify patients who need more help from the care team.

Virtua Health's successful "get human fast" online engagement platform propelled patients to interact with staff and clinicians and expanded to virtual consultations, chatbots, and remote patient monitoring (RPM). New telehealth programs for RPM that were implemented and helped escalate patients online to appropriate clinicians when needed. 

“This conversation can take the form of a scripted routine encounter that can be escalated quickly to a live text-based or video interaction with a healthcare professional to reach the appropriate outcome,” said Tarun Kapoor, M.D., Virtua Health’s chief digital transformation officer. 

lunch is the best time to reach out to patients for chatbots

Reduce Health Disparities for Disadvantaged Populations

AllianceChicago, a national, practice-based research network consisting of more than 50 community health centers (CHCs) across 19 states, reported that using AI conversational chatbots in a six-month pilot project increased well-child visits and immunizations by 13% compared with a control group. Chatbots facilitated a relative increase in well-child visits and immunizations by 27% in the intervention group overall. 

AllianceChicago used QliqSOFT’s Quincy chatbots to engage in-network English- and Spanish-speaking parents and guardians serving approximately 10,500 children — the majority identifying as racial and ethnic minorities.

This CHEC-UP project provided an all-in-one, patient-centered engagement solution that combines innovative chatbot technology and coaching to remind parents of upcoming well-child visits and immunizations at their medical home; promote dialogue around age-based recommendations from the CDC; and facilitate easy appointment scheduling that is aligned with patient preferences.

Many pediatric providers share anticipatory guidance handouts with parents during well-child visits. AllianceChicago’s proactive outreach changed this dynamic by proactively engaging parents at their convenience and providing evidence-based anticipatory guidance to help direct patients to follow best practices prior to an appointment. 

Coaching in preparation for the pediatrician visit with trusted information educates, improves confidence and promotes shared decisions between the parent and provider when they are together. Using the chatbot technology to share recommendations allowed parents to digest valuable information about their child’s growth and development outside of the stress and pressure of an office visit.

Read the AllianceChicago success story.

Behavioral Health 

QliqSOFT is expanding its digital solutions to encompass behavioral health access as an important component of whole person care services. Our Quincy chatbots and virtual visits are innovative ways to digitally help put patients at ease discussing their behavioral health conditions and getting support.

Our conversational AI chatbots can help physicians, behavioral health specialists, and other providers prepare patients for virtual visits relating to their conditions and treatment options. In addition to fostering patient engagement and self-management, chatbots and virtual visits make available online education and treatment information, support groups, apps, and other resources to manage individuals’ mental health effectively. For providers, the QliqSOFT digital platform makes it easier to track patient progress remotely and provide timely feedback. 

Ready to relieve your staff by empowering patients with conversational AI options? Contact us today to see how our solutions can be tailored for your organization’s needs. 

The Author
Bobbi Weber

Bobbi is a lifelong learner who is passionate about enabling healthcare transformation. She has 20+ years of healthcare experience in care delivery, consulting, healthcare IT, and market strategy.

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