Health and wellness are two key aspects of our lifestyle these days. The growing focus over the last decade is stretching the healthcare industry thinner, sparking a pressing need for transformation. Factors such as inflation, rising costs, workforce shortages, and staff burnout underscore the urgency for digital advancements to enhance patient outcomes. At the forefront of this transformation is conversational AI, a technological force driving crucial improvements for both medical practitioners and patients alike.

In this interview with Sanghee Lee, General Manager, APAC at Sendbird, we find out from him on the pivotal role conversational commerce and chatbots play in Southeast Asia’s healthcare landscape, and the myriad ways in which this technology is transforming healthcare services from end-to-end to the use of conversational AI to reshape the healthcare experience for all stakeholders.

How do conversational commerce and chatbots play a role in improving healthcare outcomes in Southeast Asia, and could you share some specific use cases?

With consumers placing a higher priority on their health and wellness, existing ​​healthcare systems need a quick reform to improve patient outcomes. Inflation, ​​rising healthcare costs, workforce shortages, and hospital staff burnout are all ​​putting digital advancements in the centre of the healthcare industry’s ​​​transformation agenda.

Conversational AI is powering many key use cases that benefit both the medical ​​community as well as patients.

  • AI Assistants can be presented as the first point of contact for patients seeking primary care. This will significantly reduce the burden on medical practitioners and clear up their schedule to focus on more urgent and serious cases.
  • Conversational AI powered by a chatbot/ AI assistant can help address patient FAQs and raise awareness about specific health concerns by offering accurate and timely information across various platforms including websites, messaging apps and social media. This can help patients assess the right doctor/ specialist to consult and save the time of both parties involved.
  • Appointment scheduling, re-scheduling and cancellation is another key area where chatbots can display efficiency to help reduce patient wait times and reduce frustration. This is one of the most commonly applied use cases across the healthcare industry. Conversational AI takes this one step ahead by providing appointment reminders, information on documentation required for the consultation and other handy tips.
  • Administrative departments at healthcare facilities can also benefit from this technology on a daily basis, wherein the chatbots assist in addressing common queries related to billing, report delivery, admissions, discharge et al.
  • It also helps healthcare organisations track and optimise resource allocation.
  • Conversational AI helps gather large-scale patient data and glean actionable insights that enable healthcare professionals to improve patient experience and offer personalized care and support.
  • In-consultation time can be reduced as HCPs can use conversational AI to gather and access patient records, medical history and test results in a matter of seconds. Accurate treatment pathways can be adopted based on this data.
  • Symptom checkers also help cut down on time spent on clinic visits and allow patients to approach the right specialist for online consultations as well.
  • In addition, patients are equipped with the right information to manage their own health. By improving healthcare accessibility, conversational AI empowers people to meet their healthcare goals and assists them with periodic health updates and tips to lead a healthy lifestyle.

What are the key factors contributing to the growth of conversational commerce in the healthcare industry of Southeast Asia?

Inflation, rising healthcare costs, workforce shortages, and hospital staff burnout are all putting digital advancements in the centre of the healthcare transformation agenda in Southeast Asia. With consumers placing a higher priority on their health and wellness, existing healthcare systems need a quick reform to improve patient outcomes.

Conversational AI holds great potential in the healthcare industry by humanising experiences – quite simply, Southeast Asia could see AI helping doctors treat millions of patients. Empowering doctors and the medical sector by reducing hospital workload, increasing service quality by automating tedious routine processes, eliminating the chances of human error, an interactive and intuitive approach to patient engagement and supporting documentation and database management are only some of the benefits offered by conversational commerce.

How do you envision the balance between technology and human touch in healthcare, especially with the integration of conversational AI?

The efficiency and personalised attention from doctors and nurses can never be replaced completely by technology. A hybrid format is emerging, one that combines the best of both worlds. By adopting a digital front-door strategy, healthcare providers can leverage digital features to connect patients and care teams throughout the patient care lifecycle.

Conversational AI takes virtual assistance one step forward by understanding people’s emotions and intents, and forms responses accordingly. It has the human-like ability to identify that efficiency is key for successfully addressing routine requests and completing these interactions in an accurate and timely manner.

By adopting advanced AI solutions like virtual assistants healthcare organisations can derive tremendous benefits including personalised service and overall better care leading to superior patient outcomes.

The human touch is crucial in healthcare. There needs to be a balance between deploying technology and placing medical professionals at the core of service delivery to provide emotional support and confidence and to hand-hold patients.

As healthcare systems evolve, how can we ensure that accessibility and inclusivity are prioritized for all segments of society, including those with limited digital literacy?

Sustained digitalisation will ultimately lead to better clinical outcomes for patients. With the amplified digitisation of healthcare, medical care providers are adopting highly advanced digital technologies that focus on improved patient engagement, seamless care and enabling a remote workforce. Patients can look forward to receiving even more precise diagnoses and treatments, leading to enhanced safety and superior quality of life.

Conversational AI holds great potential in the healthcare industry by humanising experiences – quite simply, Southeast Asia could see AI helping doctors treat millions of patients. Empowering doctors and the medical sector by reducing hospital workload, increasing service quality by automating tedious routine processes, eliminating the chances of human error, an interactive and intuitive approach to patient engagement and supporting documentation and database management are only some of the benefits offered by conversational commerce. Embracing digital technology will be key in helping Southeast Asia’s healthcare industry to bridge the gap between accessibility and the affordability of care in the region.

What ethical considerations should be taken into account when implementing conversational AI in healthcare, and how can we address potential privacy concerns?

Healthcare organisations and related technology companies must take ownership and responsibility by ensuring they adhere to the highest ethical standards and privacy policies recommended by the industry and local law enforcing bodies.

The entire digital healthcare ecosystem needs to step-up to ensure patient data management is given the priority treatment that it truly deserves.

  • Educating consumers on how exactly their data will be used is the first step in ensuring data privacy and protection. This also involves giving consumers a chance to decline consent.
  • Technology companies need to build appropriate technical safeguards into their healthcare AI solutions to prevent misuse of data.
  • Governments must frame and implement up-to-date legal frameworks around patient data management to ensure there is a common law for all organisations involved.

Looking ahead, what does the future of next-generation chatbots in Southeast Asia’s healthcare sector look like? How might they further revolutionize patient care?

In Southeast Asia, as in many parts of the world, quality healthcare resources are often limited, which can sometimes slow down the growth of effective services. However, by harnessing the power of chatbot technologies, we can bridge this gap and efficiently connect consumers to top-notch healthcare services on a broader scale.

Through our experience in providing communication and chatbot technologies to a variety of consumer-provider markets, we’ve seen firsthand how our solutions empower businesses. By leveraging our infrastructure, our customers are able to extend their reach and enhance service quality, while also conserving their engineering resources. Looking forward, we anticipate that next-generation chatbots will play an even more transformative role in Southeast Asia’s healthcare sector, ushering in an era of more personalized, efficient, and accessible patient care.

Could you share some success stories or case studies of healthcare providers in Southeast Asia that have experienced notable improvements in patient care and outcomes through the integration of conversational AI?

A prominent example of successful integration of conversational AI into healthcare is the OneNUHS chatbot launched by Singapore’s National University Hospital (NUHS) as part of NUHS’ digital health strategy. The chatbot also allows patients to submit vital signs – which turn into data that the ENDEAVOUR AI platform processes in order to enable proactive care. Dr Wayne Lee – family physician at National University Polyclinics (NUP) – stated that this chatbot serves a dual purpose in that it not only offers clinicians a more efficient way of processing information but also provides patients with an easier way of recording their medical information.

HD, a healthcare and surgery marketplace with operations in Thailand and Indonesia is also  leveraging OpenAI’s GPT-4 model to facilitate and streamline communication with customers across different languages. On its HDMall platform, which offers outpatient and inpatient healthcare services, 30% of transactions are processed through chat commerce. The firm is utilizing generative AI to answer customer queries not just in English but also in local languages like Bahasa Indonesia.

With the rapidly changing landscape of healthcare, how can healthcare providers adapt to stay ahead of the curve in adopting and leveraging conversational commerce solutions?

Healthcare providers can embrace telehealth and virtual care by expanding services that offer patients real-time access to healthcare professionals through chatbots and video consultations. To stay ahead, it’s essential to integrate these services seamlessly with conversational interfaces. This approach not only improves accessibility for patients but also streamlines healthcare delivery.

To enhance patient engagement, providers can proactively use conversational commerce. They can send appointment reminders, medication alerts, and health tips via messaging apps. Additionally, encouraging patients to ask questions and provide feedback through chat interfaces fosters a more patient-centric approach to care, ultimately improving patient satisfaction.

Another crucial aspect is personalizing patient experiences. By leveraging data analytics and AI, providers can gain insights into patient preferences, medical histories, and individual needs. This information allows them to tailor recommendations and responses, creating a more personalized and patient-focused approach that enhances adherence to treatment plans.

What are the opportunities that exist in the market for healthcare chatbots, and how are they poised to impact the industry positively?

The healthcare chatbot market is experiencing substantial growth with opportunities abound. By 2032, the market size is projected to exceed USD 1.168 billion, and these chatbots are poised to have a significant positive impact on the industry. 

They do this by improving patient engagement through personalized interactions, cost savings via streamlined administrative tasks, and enhanced accessibility for all, including elderly patients. Additionally, chatbots enable remote monitoring and chronic disease management, fostering early intervention and better patient outcomes. Their data-driven insights empower healthcare providers to make informed decisions, ultimately enhancing the efficiency and quality of healthcare services.

In what ways can AI-powered chatbots help in enhancing health outcomes and transforming the dynamics of the doctor-patient relationship?

One of the most obvious advantages of chatbots is their 24/7 availability, which ensures that patients can access medical guidance and information at any time. This accessibility reduces delays in receiving crucial advice and assistance, particularly during emergencies.

Chatbots also serve as valuable sources of health education, providing patients with accurate, up-to-date information and educational materials. This allows patients to make informed decisions about their health and encourages them to take an active role in managing their well-being.

Furthermore, AI-powered chatbots simplify administrative tasks like appointment scheduling, billing inquiries, and insurance coordination, reducing the burden on healthcare professionals. This frees up more time for meaningful doctor-patient interactions

How might the integration of AI-driven chatbots in healthcare extend beyond patient-doctor interactions, and potentially impact broader public health initiatives or research efforts?

The integration of AI-driven chatbots in healthcare holds the promise of extending its impact far beyond patient-doctor interactions. These chatbots can play a pivotal role in broader public health initiatives by serving as vehicles for health education and awareness. They can disseminate accurate information about preventive measures, vaccination campaigns, and emerging health threats, contributing to increased public awareness and healthier behaviours.

Moreover, AI chatbots can aid in early warning systems and epidemiological surveillance. By collecting and analyzing data on reported symptoms from a wide population, they can detect trends and hotspots of specific diseases, offering valuable insights for rapid response and containment efforts during outbreaks. This is extremely valuable in the case where society is forced to respond to another incident similar to the pandemic.Sendbird has been at the forefront of facilitating transformation across various industries, notably in healthcare, through the integration of AI-driven chatbots. In many traditional two-sided markets, the provider side often grapples with ensuring ample support. With our technology, we’ve witnessed firsthand how chatbots can significantly enhance the capacity of the provider side. This amplification becomes particularly crucial in the healthcare domain, where resources are sometimes limited. By integrating these automated bots, we’re not only augmenting support but also paving the way for a revolutionary shift in healthcare service delivery.

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