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Chatbots provide health information, recommendations during COVID-19 uncertainty

Hospital systems, tech start-ups and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are using chatbots and online self-assessment tools to answer the public's questions and guide them to medical resources as COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, continues its spread across the U.S.

While self-assessment tools have been around for years, the coronavirus outbreak has caused many companies to revise their tools and refocus them on COVID-19 information.

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Technology startups like Ro, a telehealth company that has also partnered with Pfizer Inc. subsidiary Greenstone LLC to provide low-cost prescriptions, have also created health bot tools that are now being offered in addition to its telehealth services.

The Cleveland Clinic is one hospital that has created a chatbot for people who are concerned about the coronavirus. Amy Merlino, Cleveland Clinic's chief medical information officer, told S&P Global Market Intelligence the hospital had 91,000 visitors to its Health Bot as of March 27.

The questions on the online tool ask users about their travel history, symptoms and risk of COVID-19, followed by a recommendation for their next course of action. Each question and recommendation is based on the CDC's coronavirus guidelines, Merlino said.

Like the CDC's coronavirus assessment, the Cleveland Clinic's tool is powered by Microsoft Corp.'s Azure platform.

Microsoft worked with the CDC to develop its tool, which provides information on how to manage symptoms of low-risk coronavirus patients at home and locate local healthcare providers.

Microsoft also created templates for its Health Bot that other hospital systems could use and modify for their own websites. Virginia Mason Health System and Novant Health are just two of the hospital systems making use of Microsoft's Health Bot.

Experiencing 'Grace'

Another system is Providence St. Joseph Health in Seattle where Executive Vice President and Chief Digital and Innovation Officer Aaron Martin and his team of 120 people have been working on a chatbot, called Grace, and comprehensive website in its fight against the coronavirus.

Providence had been using Grace as a self-assessment tool for a couple of years, Martin said, but when COVID-19 made its way to Seattle, one of the first places in the U.S. to have a case, the chatbot had to be repurposed.

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"The idea, obviously, is: for people who are concerned about COVID, it gives them a little bit more interaction than you typically would by just reading through a page and also guides you through an interview," Martin said. "And then it drops people into different outcomes based on the questions that they're answering."

As of March 26, Martin said about 270,000 people had used the coronavirus advisory page, and at least 81,000 of those people were directed there via the Grace tool. Martin said the team had also expanded the tool to allow users to ask Grace questions about the virus such as "What is a novel coronavirus?" and the bot provides guidance from the CDC.

Not only does the chatbot help patients by answering their questions and guiding them to resources, Martin said, but it also helps keep healthcare workers safe and frees up resources that are already scarce during this outbreak.

Martin also said his team is exploring ways that they can use patient data from the chatbot to track the geographic spread of the coronavirus and where people in the U.S. are concerned about the virus.

However, the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation in the U.S. may present a problem for these chatbots as the CDC works to keep its guidelines up to date.

On March 15 there were just 772 confirmed new cases of coronavirus in the U.S., but by March 29, there were over 19,000 new cases, according to data from the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

But Martin said that for his team, at least, providing accurate information for the Grace tool is the main priority.

"I think there was a survey once that said, and it's probably especially true these days, you know, people feel like their health systems are the most critical source of health information, not surprisingly, and so our number one job is to get the information out there," Martin said.