In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Banner Health launched virtual waiting rooms for its 300 clinics across the country. The virtual waiting rooms are equipped with chatbots from the health technology company LifeLink that assist patients via text-based communication.
The normal waiting room experience, which included close proximities of patients, needed to be updated for pandemic distancing. According to Greg Kefer, Chief Marketing Officer at LifeLink, the chatbot automates the paperwork patients normally fill out while sitting in the waiting room. This process is now completed in advance.
Patients communicate with the chatbot through text messaging on any device. As Kefer explained, this makes it especially accessible because no app needs to be downloaded nor does any password need to be created or remembered.
Kefer also suggests that this new process may serve as a solution to patients who have resisted going to the doctor.
“A lot of people are scared about going,” Kefer said. “I mean think of people that have immune deficiencies, or respiratory illness or people that have asthma and need to see the doctor all the time. A lot of them are holding off going to the doctors, going to the emergency departments because they’re afraid of getting infected. Banner hopes that by providing a social distancing-friendly way into your doctor, people will be more willing to go in.”
Telehealth visits are becoming more frequent, according to Kefer. This is in part due to COVID-19 and easing governmental regulations on privacy. The patient can decide, through the chatbot, whether they would like a telehealth appointment, an in-person appointment, or both. If a patient selects a telehealth appointment, doctors can then schedule an in-person meeting if they deem one necessary during the appointment.
The pandemic did not necessarily incite this new technology, but it was a catalyst for its complete rollout. According to Christopher Stallings with Banner Health, chatbots were already being used at Banner. Although not previously used in a waiting room setting, chatbots were used to inform patients in the Emergency Room.
“Almost all Banner providers offer telehealth visits,” Stallings said in an email. “Start by contacting your primary care provider to determine if in-person evaluation or testing might be necessary. If your [primary care physician] is unable to see you, or you do not have a PCP, you can schedule a Banner urgent care visit in our app or visit one of our emergency care locations. Please wear your own mask or put on a hospital-provided mask immediately upon arrival to protect other patients, visitors and health care workers.”
Kefer explained another previous use of the chatbots with senior citizens on Medicare. Banner found that a lot of these people were skipping their annual appointments because of the sheer amount of forms they were required to fill and possibly due to the fact that these were check-up appointments, not scheduled because they were sick or needed specific attention.
Chatbots were tested as a solution to this situation, to ease the process for senior citizens. Appointment cancelations decreased by 70 percent after chatbots were implemented.
“By lowering cancelation rates they saved a bunch of money but at the same time it also saved them a lot of time,” Kefer said.
The technology has existed before the pandemic and both Stallings and Kefer figure that this new process will become the norm even after the pandemic is a thing of the past.
“It was actually not a great experience a lot of the time because you’d be sitting there, oftentimes waiting 20-30-40 minutes because the doctor was running behind. And that’s kind of frustrating, or there’s nowhere to sit or it’s packed and there’s someone sitting next to you that’s coughing. Which would be weird even in the days before COVID. Which would be really weird now,” Kefer said. “It’s not like the waiting room experience was a great thing that everybody loved.”
Noah Cullen is a University of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.