Chatbots are at the center of a real revolution in the healthcare sector. They could never take over the role of the doctor, but they can certainly help him communicate with the patient in a much faster, easier way.

There are certainly many advantages, including better therapy adherence, which helps reduce the burden of cost to the national health service. In addition, the system allows the collection of valuable data, useful to create predictive algorithms, which can help improve future medical care and so ensure greater well-being for patients.

The doctor-patient barrier

During a consultation, the patient may feel uncomfortable about asking the doctor a potentially embarrassing or trivial question, for fear of being judged. As a result, he may omit certain details about his symptoms, or fail to ask for an explanation about something that is not clear, and so compromise his treatment.

This barrier prevents calm and trusting dialogue between doctor and patient.

This is where Chatbots play their part; research carried out in an American University has indeed shown how they can serve as a useful tool in overcoming this obstacle.

The Californian study

A study by the Institute for Creative Technologies, University of California, showed the value of this theory, using a project that involved 478 participants in dialogue with Ellie, a virtual psychologist.

The subjects were divided into two equal-sized groups. The people in the first group were told that they would only interact with a machine. However, those in the second group were told that there would always be a human presence behind the machine, acting as an essential guiding hand.

To demonstrate the theory that people express themselves more freely with a Chatbot, all the subjects in fact only interacted with a machine.

Their task was to talk about their lives, answering questions about private or potentially awkward matters, such as “Tell me about your family” or “Are you happy?”

During this process, all the subjects were monitored by use of facial scans, which revealed their reactions to various questions, such as sadness, anxiety or displeasure. Alongside this technological approach, there were also three psychologists, completely unaware of the true purpose of the research. They analysed the participants’ responses to uncover any discrepancies which would indicate that they were lying.

The result was surprising: those who believed there was a human operator behind Ellie were nervous about revealing too many personal details, while those who thought they were only interacting with a machine were much more forthcoming.

In addition, the psychologists observing the experiment noted that those who believed they were not interacting exclusively with Ellie took longer to answer, and showed more pronounced emotional reactions when reading the questions and responding.

Finally, it emerged that almost all the participants in both groups liked the fact that the interaction was written rather than spoken, as this allowed them to respond more freely, without feeling anxious or embarrassed.

Systems such as Chatbots will play an increasingly important part in the future of healthcare, as they allow patients to express themselves with greater freedom and so ensure more successful treatment.


Sources: Wired. The Economist