Conversational technologies can be rapidly deployed for pandemic response

New research published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association found that chatbots and other conversational agents can be used to provide up-to-date facts about COVID-19.

Researchers from IBM Watson Health and Vanderbilt University Medical Center explored the ways governmental agencies, employers, provider organizations and health plans used the Watson Assistant platform to deliver COVID-19-related information to users.

“Given the enormous demand for information about COVID-19, many stakeholders have leveraged emerging conversational technologies to automate responses to common COVID-19 related questions and information needs specific to their organizations,” wrote the team.


As the researchers noted, chatbots have been used in healthcare to aid in performing specific tasks, determining social needs, and prompting behavior change.

But in response to the rapidly evolving information – and disinformation – landscape around the novel coronavirus throughout 2020, many organizations turned to natural language processing tools as part of public-awareness strategies.

As of August 10, 101 organizations had used Watson Assistant to develop a conversational agent related to COVID-19, with usage data available for 37. Those organizations used their chatbots to provide a wide range of information, including:

  • COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Testing information.
  • Information on preventative behaviors.
  • Local and national information about the disease.
  • Response initiatives.
  • Availability of services and how to access them.
  • Guidelines, restrictions, closures and reopening information.
  • Course and exam information.
  • Unemployment benefits and information.
  • Stimulus payments. 
  • Business assistance.
  • Volunteering opportunities.

A total of 6,872,021 messages were sent in conversations about COVID-19 using the platform between March 30 and August 10, with conversational turns (meaning pairs of interactions between users and agents) highest among provider organizations and lowest for health plans.

“Yet, across organizations, the number of conversational turns is not reflective of highly complex conversations,” researchers wrote. “Due to the novel and rapidly evolving context in the early stages of a pandemic, most users probably asked simple, transactional types of questions such as ‘Is the hospital open?’ and ‘What is COVID-19?’

“This trend is likely to change as the pandemic evolves,” they continued. “For example, in the later weeks of this study, conversational length among employers spiked. We hypothesize that as workers returned to work, more complex conversations around workplace safety and reopening policies occurred.”


As with many other tools, chatbots are an inherently neutral technology, with the potential to either help or hurt patients in a healthcare setting.

For example, as a viewpoint piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association outlined this summer, a chatbot’s response to a user’s declaration of wanting to harm themselves can cause confusion or even danger. 

It is important, said the authors of that piece, for the operators of chatbots to be nimble and ready to intervene personally if necessary.

At the same time, chatbots can be used to ease user anxiety about seeking medical care, particularly at hours when humans aren’t available. 

“Chatbots are scalable, so they can meet an unexpected surge in demand when there is a shortage of qualified human agents,” wrote the authors of a different JAMIA piece published in July. “Chatbots can provide around-the-clock service at a low operational cost.”


“We have demonstrated the ability of a wide variety of organizations including governments, employers, providers, and payers to use conversational technologies to provide current information related to COVID-19 to their citizens, employees, patients, and beneficiaries,” read the December JAMIA study. 

“The WA platform enabled rapid implementation of a set of conversational agents for a wide variety of use cases, and usage data show demand for and adoption of these technologies during a rapidly evolving public health crisis,” the researchers added.


Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Email: [email protected]
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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