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How AI health chatbots can help stem coronavirus pandemic chaos

14 February 2020 in Company

If the pandemic doesn’t get you, the chaos in the healthcare system will.

AI health chatbots around the world are racing to add coronavirus detection into algorithms or put up helpful information to demonstrate they are part of the response to coronavirus (COVID-19).

But to be honest, it’s pointless.

We’ve done it, we know.

A symptom checker can’t diagnose you with COVID-19. That can only be done through testing. The symptoms are too close to cold and flu and we’re in the middle of cold and flu season.

Nor should it tell anyone presenting with flu-like symptoms to go to a doctor's office or a hospital. That will just overload the system and spread infections.

The impact of disease outbreaks on health services

Prof Dr. Maureen Baker, Chief Medical Officer at Your.MD and former Chair of the UK’s Royal College of General Practitioners, has been involved at the highest level of pandemic preparation planning in the UK for decades.

She is clear that AI chatbots, like Your.MD, can play a vital role in reducing the number of people who unnecessarily seek medical treatment and the deaths of individuals who are endangered by symptoms unrelated to COVID-19.

Prof Baker explains: “When pandemics hit they overwhelm health services. Even China is struggling. Imagine what can happen in low and middle-income countries with underdeveloped health systems or even the UK’s National Health System (NHS) which already struggles to cope with a normal flu season.”

Her opinion is supported by reams of evidence suggesting that pandemics not only kill in their own right, but also contribute to significant increases in deaths from other conditions that health services are too overwhelmed to treat.

Lessons learned from past pandemics

According to research done by Falcone and Detty 2015, pandemics increase morbidity and mortality because they:

  • divert resources from routine care
  • diminish access to routine care
  • restrict an individual’s ability to travel for care
  • increase ‘worried well’ seeking unnecessary care
  • infect professionals who provide care
  • increase absenteeism in professionals

During the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic, lack of routine care for malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis led to an estimated 10,600 additional deaths in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone (Parpia and others 2016). Health facilities also closed as a result of understaffing, and fear of contracting the disease played a large role in lack of access to or avoidance of routine healthcare.

In the UK, several GP surgeries have already closed because 2 of the 4 initial cases were healthcare workers.

This indirect death toll in West Africa nearly equalled the 11,300 deaths directly caused by Ebola in those countries (WHO 2016a). Additionally, diversion of funds, medical resources and personnel led to a 30% decrease in routine childhood immunisation rates in affected countries (UNDP 2014).

During the 2009 flu pandemic, a greater surge in hospital admissions for flu and pneumonia was associated with statistically significant increases in deaths attributable to heart attacks and strokes (Rubinson and others 2013).

The availability of healthcare workers also decreases during a pandemic because of illness, some deaths and fear of catching the infection.

Even if healthcare workers are not infected, their ability to provide care may be reduced. At the peak of a severe flu pandemic, up to 40% of healthcare workers might be unable to report for duty because they are ill themselves, need to care for ill family members, need to care for children because of school closures, or are afraid (Falcone and Detty 2015; U.S. Homeland Security Council 2006).

The role of chatbots during an outbreak

So, if AI health chatbots can’t reliably detect COVID-19 and should only advise you to stay at home, what else can they do?

“They can work in tandem with governments and health services to stop the worried well not at risk from the virus from seeking treatment, and also support people to self-care where that is appropriate,” says Prof Baker.

She thinks that with collaboration, there is enormous potential for chatbots to act as reliable companions providing guidance and tracking symptoms.

Prof Baker explained: “In a pandemic, everyone will need to become more accountable and responsible for their own health. Chatbots can bridge the information gap between consumers and clinicians and enable people to make decisions about when to seek help based on evidence. I genuinely think AI-driven chatbots have a significant role to play in saving lives and allocating resources effectively.”

Dr. Mark Davies, Chair of Your.MD’s clinical advisory board and a former UK government health advisor added: “In a pandemic, it is critical to maintain current health services. The use of chatbots can provide fast and consistent information to individuals, particularly those working in healthcare environments, and can be applied in a measured way.”

Safety remains of paramount importance and there are a small number of AI chatbots, like Your.MD, that have already achieved Class I medical device status from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Matteo Berlucchi, Your.MD’s Chief Executive, said: “The government and the AI chatbot industry need to work together. If we play to our strengths, chatbots can help people make evidence-based decisions rather than attempting to play ‘virtual doctor'. Avoiding unnecessary visits to doctors and emergency departments can make a real contribution and save lives.”


Note: Your.MD has a coronavirus checker designed by Prof Dr Maureen Baker, a former Pandemic Flu Planning Lead for the UK's Royal College of General Practitioners and Your.MD's Chief Medical Officer. This is available free of charge in the web app and the Android and iOS apps. The coronavirus checker is designed to help people assess if they have been in a situation which puts them at higher risk of catching the virus.

Your.MD has also created an information hub about novel coronavirus (COVID-19) to bring together all the official sources in one place. It is updated regularly. Misinformation is one of the most dangerous things in any pandemic. Only trust sources that are medically validated.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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