Virtual assistants are now trusted by users in a number of industries, including banking, airlines, utilities, and healthcare. Utilizing the conversational interfaces of either chat or voice, these so-called “chatbots” are quickly adding much needed support to an overstretched workforce.

Problem to which virtual assistants could be applied:

Within the United Kingdom’s West Midlands region, the Integrated Care Alliance is responsible for the provision of urgent care to over 4.5MM citizens.

The Alliance understood that enabling patients to address health issues digitally had become a critical aspect of its ability to continue to deliver healthcare efficiently and successfully. In addition, they recognized that patient adoption was contingent on both ease of use and clinical value offered. Finally, the Alliance was well aware of the privacy and clinical governance requirements for any patient-facing technology offering. After an extensive global technology evaluation process, the Alliance decided to partner with Sensely, a digital health company, to develop a co-branded mobile health application called Ask NHS.

Ask NHS’s development involved the incorporation of accredited clinical algorithms from a trusted clinical information provider, as well as direct integration with several critical NHS IT systems. The intent of Ask NHS is to provide an easy to use “front end” that patients can use before seeking higher-touch contact with NHS phone services, urgent care services, or primary care. The user interface of Ask NHS provides for communicating with a virtual health assistant (called “Olivia” for the UK market) using voice recognition or chat modes. Depending on the patient’s symptoms, Olivia presents a series of questions utilizing a validated third-party clinical decision support system. Based on the results of the question set, users are then directed to the most appropriate service for their specific situation.

Results with virtual assistants:

In addition to the aforementioned symptom checker, Ask NHS’s core functionality includes:

  • General Practitioner (GP) appointment booking. Patients are given a choice of available appointment times and can book or cancel appointments directly from Ask NHS
  • Find local NHS services NHS’s Directory of Service (DoS)
  • Trusted self-care health and wellness advice, powered by NHS Choices

Ask NHS was launched in April 2017 and as of September 2018 has more than 150,000 registered users. Symptom checking has emerged as the most popular application for Ask NHS usage, with over 2/3rds of total use. For completed symptom checking protocols, approximately 41% result in a reduced or eliminated telephony requirement, and users complete the symptom checker assessment within 4 minutes whereas a traditional telephone encounter with a health advisor can take twice as long.  In addition,

Ask NHS’s ability to collect patient symptom information within the app and then transfer this information electronically to third party call-center providers allows the urgent care providers to avoid the time-consuming function of asking a series of detailed questions over the phone. In short, Ask NHS is delivering high value advice with a lower burden to the system.

Rachael Ellis, Chief Officer at Sandwell and West Birmingham Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and lead on Integrated Urgent Care in the West Midlands region, commented, “The Ask NHS app provides patients with on-demand access to NHS services 24/7. We want to make it as easy as possible for patients to obtain medical advice in the way that best suits them. For some, using the app is the most convenient. Patient safety and quality are, of course, our top priorities, but offering patient choice is also important and we believe the app helps us do that.”

Conclusion after deployment of virtual assistants:

With their unique focus on human-centered development approaches, virtual assistants play an important role in helping to deliver on the promise of transforming and revolutionizing both clinical delivery as well as the patient experience. The potential implications are staggering. For example, in the UK, approximately 13 million calls are made annually to the NHS 111 advice line. The ability to shift such volumes of user interactions to a more popular digital channel should provide a healthy impetus for continued innovation and the next generation of patient empowerment.

You can learn more about virtual assistants in our deep dive in AIMed Magazine issue 05 on Robotic Technology & Virtual Assistants, available to read here.

Author Bio

artificial intelligence healthcare medicine data virtual assistantsDr. Ivana Schnur is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of Sensely, the breakthrough “virtual nurse” that guides patients through the initial triage process through the use of artificial intelligence. Using smart machine learning and connection to a clinical hub, Sensely’s nurse Olivia directs patients either to a live nurse, schedules a GP appointment, locates clinical services, or gets medical information and advice all while keeping their doctor informed. Dr. Schnur brings a unique combination of clinical knowledge, product insight, marketing and business development to power the transformation of clinical workflows in scalable, quantifiable and compassionate ways using Sensely technology.

Prior to co-founding Sensely, Dr. Schnur worked at several early stage startups bringing extensive experience in the design of clinical protocols and immersive interfaces, including the application of virtual technology in the clinical settings. In 2009 she co-founded InWorld Solutions, the pioneering avatar-based virtual reality platform that assists clinical psychologists in behavioral modifications and other clinical modalities.