Banner Health Chatbot Offers Answers To ED Patients As They Wait

I’ve got to say that it’s nice to write a positive story about a healthcare system’s health IT efforts after covering troubles they’ve faced previously.  I’m not saying that health IT shops don’t recover and do good stuff after tech glitches happen, but too often, problems get more publicity than successes.

To back up a bit, last year I wrote about the problems Phoenix, Ariz.-based Banner Health faced had when it cut its Tucson hospitals over from Epic to a Cerner system. According to an area newspaper, chaos ensued after the cutover, with the state’s Department of Health Services ultimately determining that there were at least two instances when glitches impacted patient care.

This month, in contrast, I was pleased to read about a clever application Banner had built on its new EHR. Beginning at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, Ariz., Banner Health has begun rolling out a chatbot which answers questions for people waiting in Its emergency departments. The health system expects to have the bot in place at all 28 of its facilities by September.

The process of providing access to the bot begins just after the patient checks in. Once they’re registered with the Banner ED staff, patients get a text message inviting them to use the chatbot application.

Once installed, the bot can certainly answer standard questions such as “Can I leave the waiting room?” and “Is it okay to eat and/or drink prior to seeing a provider?” But if that was all it did I wouldn’t be impressed.

What makes this project neat is that the bot can also respond to patient-specific queries. Because Banner has connected the bot to its Cerner system, patients get real-time updates on what’s up behind the scenes, such as the status of diagnostic tests, labs and imaging, and can also ask related questions about their stay, according to the Greeley Tribune.

I particularly liked the way one of Banner’s health IT leaders described the initiative. “It’s why Domino’s does a pizza tracker, right?” transformation program director Josh Synder told the newspaper. “Patients just want to know what’s going on…how everything is progressing through the system.”

While some might object to comparing patient care to the process of delivering a pizza, I think Snyder makes an excellent point. Domino’s has identified a consumer need, and it makes sense to bear that in mind.

As a chronically ill patient who has clocked more than the usual number of ED visits, I have to say Synder is absolutely right about the benefits of arming us with knowledge. What’s more, Banner’s patients seem to agree. According to the health system, during the first month after launch patients had an average of 9.4 conversations with the bot during their ED stay. (The most common questions centered around when their labs or imaging results would be available.)

To be clear, this isn’t a new concept, exactly. In fact, any patient using the right portal can get such results in real-time if they have their provider’s app on their phone. The thing is, for many who aren’t healthcare information super-users, it just wouldn’t occur to them to look, especially when they’re feeling sick. Offering them access to friendly new technology at the point of care makes it more likely they’ll stop and engage.

I only have anecdotal experience to rely on, but my guess is that most patients would find a chatbot to be much more comfortable to use than a portal.  I know I would!

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.