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Artificial Intelligence

Chatbots: The Future of Healthcare

Medical chatbots can encourage people to seek health advice sooner.

Key points

  • The increased interest in artificial intelligence can have a wide range of applications, including healthcare.
  • People may be more willing to consult a chatbot for a sensitive or stigmatizing medical condition.
  • It's important to ensure a flow of accurate information and compassionate response from AI in healthcare.

Dr. Chatbot: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

In recent years, chatbots have become increasingly present in our digital lives. Though previously used mainly as virtual assistants and in customer service, ChatGPT has ignited our fascination with the potential of chatbots to change the world.

One area that the introduction of chatbots and AI could revolutionize is healthcare.

This article discusses medical chatbots, underlining their potential to reshape the healthcare landscape. We address prevalent concerns and highlight recent research findings indicating that chatbots may encourage individuals with sensitive health issues to seek help sooner.

Medical Chatbots

Medical chatbots respond to prompts and data shared by users about their health to offer relevant information, guidance, and advice. As healthcare systems grapple with staffing shortages and overburdened resources, medical chatbots could offer a digital lifeline.

There is a huge demand for online health information. According to an online report on Google’s web traffic, it is estimated that more than 70,000 health-related searches are conducted every minute.

Medical chatbots provide quick and convenient health information by tapping into an ever-expanding array of databases and sources of knowledge.

Early research even suggests that chatbots can improve upon some doctors’ style of communication. In a recent study, licensed healthcare professionals were tasked with evaluating and comparing responses from doctors and ChatGPT to health-related inquiries on social media. ChatGPT responses outperformed doctors’ responses in terms of both quality and empathy, earning significantly higher ratings in 79 percent of the 585 evaluations.

Our Latest Research

To fully harness the potential of medical chatbots, user engagement is crucial. We sought to understand current public perceptions of medical chatbots and the ways people believe they can benefit from this emerging technology.

Our research at the Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) Lab at Northumbria University explored people’s perceptions of medical chatbots using a nationally representative online sample of 402 UK adults. The study experimentally tested the impact of different scenarios involving experiences of embarrassing and stigmatizing health conditions on participant preferences for medical consultations.

The study showed that most people still prefer talking with doctors than with chatbots. However, when it comes to embarrassing sexual symptoms, participants were much more willing to consult with a chatbot than for other categories of symptoms.

Participants reported that while consultations with doctors were perceived as more accurate, reassuring, trustworthy, and useful, chatbot consultations were considered easier and more convenient.

Many people believed that having the option to consult with a chatbot would encourage them to seek medical advice earlier—highlighting the critical role that chatbots could play in addressing sensitive health issues.

Medical Chatbots and Sensitive Health Issues

Many patients dealing with various common health issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, low libido, and discomfort during sexual activity, often experience feelings of embarrassment when discussing their health.

Similarly, several health conditions are often connected with experiences of societal stigma, including diabetes, eating disorders, human immunodeficiency virus, and sexually transmitted infections. These conditions frequently trigger public misconceptions, discriminatory attitudes, and feelings of societal stigmatization.

Engaging in open conversations about health with medical professionals can be challenging for individuals who anticipate encountering stigma or embarrassment upon revealing their symptoms and experiences of health. This predicament can lead to missed opportunities for early treatment, ultimately impacting overall health and well-being. By facilitating preliminary conversations about embarrassing and stigmatized symptoms, medical chatbots can play a pivotal role in influencing whether or not someone seeks medical guidance.

Would You Use a Medical Chatbot?

The potential benefits of medical chatbots are profound and wide-reaching.

Recent findings demonstrate that ChatGPT is already capable of delivering highly relevant and interpretable responses to medical queries. Medical chatbots can offer fast, remote information to millions of people simultaneously. They may also help streamline healthcare services, reducing some of the current pressures on staff.

Data gathered from user interactions may also be used to uncover hidden health patterns, supporting AI applications to enhance our understanding and management of countless medical conditions.

However, medical chatbots also come with a variety of risks and challenges.

Despite their potential to provide medical advice and expedite diagnoses, concerns persist about the accuracy of responses and the need for human oversight. Instances of chatbots providing false or misleading information pose significant risks to users’ health.

Issues of data privacy and the potential for chatbots to generate false information underscore the need for a careful approach when deploying chatbots into healthcare. Early negative experiences with medical chatbots could damage trust, limiting the public’s willingness to engage.

Medical Chatbots Are the Future

As we balance the allure of AI and the need to protect people’s health, medical chatbots have the potential to improve access to health information—especially when it comes to health issues people typically don’t like to discuss. Chatbots can encourage people to seek help sooner and talk openly about their health.

But, as we move forward, we must remember that medical chatbots should be offered as a complement, not a replacement, to face-to-face interactions with healthcare professionals.

While it’s challenging to predict exactly how medical chatbots will shape our future health management, considering their rapid advancement and the growing demand for digital innovation in healthcare, it’s hard to imagine a future without them.

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