Navigating the Healthcare System is Miserable – Can AI Bots Help?

Regardless of whether you’re a chronic patient or a casual visitor to your doctor, navigating the healthcare system is miserable. I saw this first hand recently when I and then my daughter got a simple wart on our hand. You’d think this wasn’t a big deal, but as usual we put off treating it. We weren’t even sure it was a wart and so we left it and it got to the point that it was painful. We started to feel like we needed to get some real medical care before it got even worse and we lost a finger. Ok, that’s probably an exaggeration of what would have really happened, but what do we know about how bad it could get? In fact, that’s really the point. We aren’t doctors and we didn’t know how to evaluate how bad it had really gotten and if medical care was needed or not.

Turns out. I learned that I’m terrible at this type of triage. On myself, I can kind of deal with my bad decisions. With my kids, it’s even worse. I feel like I need to be a great parent and have regularly taken them to the doctor for something that didn’t need a doctor, urgent care, or ER visit just because I needed to alleviate that parent guilt that says “What if?” Although, that feeling is also battling against the dread of going to the doctor combined with the cost. Notice that I added dread before cost. You probably know what I mean since everyone goes through these situations. The decision to get medical care or not is hard.

This is why I was so intrigued when I came across a company called Buoy Health who’s created an AI chatbot that basically checks your symptoms and helps you through your triage efforts. Rather than telling you what it’s like, you can go and check out their symptom checking AI bot for free.

I tried this myself when I had a son that was coughing up a storm. What struck me about the chat bot was the detail it went into. Little did I know that there were so many various types of cough and mucus and they each indicate something different that’s happening in the body. I’ll admit that it was sometimes a challenge knowing which option to pick. Although, it also highlighted something really incredible about what Buoy health had done. This was based on medical research and not just created on a whim.

I learned this was indeed the case when I had a chance to talk with Andrew Le, CEO of Buoy Health. When Andrew Le was studying medicine at Harvard Medicine school he ran into a similar challenging experience navigating the healthcare system as I did. That’s where the idea of Buoy Health was born. Andrew Le started pouring over all the medical research in order to create a way to more effectively triage patients. Buoy Health now has a team of doctors that are responsible for evaluating the research and making their symptom checker bot better.

Of course, the true measure of how effective this triage chat bot would be is how well it would work with real patients. Andrew Le told me that they rolled this out with a hospital and they saw amazing results. In fact, so amazing that the hospital asked them to stop doing it because they were losing too much business. Ahh…the perverse incentives of healthcare.

Buoy Health shared with me that 56% of ER visits are actually non-urgent. That feels like a huge opportunity to help curb skyrocketing healthcare costs, no? Well, it is, but as I often remind people, cutting costs always means paying someone less. So far no one has raised there hand that they’re willing to get paid less.

What does this mean for Buoy Health? Does that mean they have an incredible solution that healthcare organizations won’t adopt? At least they won’t until value based care is fully rolled out?

Given these results, it’s no surprise that Buoy Health had to pivot their efforts to the employer market. Most large employers are self insured and so they have skin in the game when it comes to unnecessary ER and urgent care visits. A triage bot like what Buoy Health has makes a lot of sense for these employers.

This is a particularly valuable tool given some of the trends happening today. Buoy Health shared with me that 33% of patients don’t have a regular primary care doctor. This creates a barrier to care that causes many patients to delay care. While Buoy Health can help avoid unnecessary urgent care and ER visits, it can also encourage a patient who’s inappropriately avoiding care to actually get the care they need. They tell me that 67% of those using their symptom checker feel encouraged to seek help and 76% intend to follow Buoy Health’s recommendations.

While symptom checking is challenging enough, I was even more intrigued by Andrew Le’s comments about navigating health insurance benefits and the wide spectrum of care modalities (telehealth, retail health, convenient care, urgent care, ER, primary care, specialists, etc). Buoy Health shared that 60% of patients don’t fully understand their health insurance benefits and 33% would rather talk about their weight publicly than research their health benefits. Navigating health insurance benefits is painful.

I saw this first hand in the aforementioned wart incident with my daughter and myself. Turns out, I tried almost every modality of care.

  • Retail Care -> Used to do it, but can’t do it now
  • Convenient Care -> Doesn’t have the tools/supplies to treat it
  • Primary Care -> Was too bad, so referred to a dermatologist or I could go to urgent care if I couldn’t get in with derm
  • Dermatologist -> 2 months out for an Appointment
  • Urgent Care -> We could treat it, but it just so happens were out of supplies for the treatment

I finally called in a favor from a doctor friend and he saw it and taught me how to treat a wart using over the counter medication.  I’m happy to report that my daughter and I were doing fine.

What’s tough to swallow is that we’d let the problem fester so long without getting treatment that we started to think it was something more than a wart. If we’d had an easy symptom checking bot solution that directed us to the over the counter medication earlier, we could have saved all that hassle. Plus, if it was bad enough to need a doctor, the right AI bot could understand my benefits and the level of care required for my problem and direct me to the right location for my problem.

This is the vision Andrew Le shared with me for Buoy Health. Their chat bot should be able to help you navigate both your symptoms and your benefits to ensure that you’re getting the best treatment possible in the most cost effective way possible. Sounds exactly what an employer wants for you too. More importantly, it’s what I as a patient want as well.

Lest you think Buoy Health is some young startup, they just passed 8 million users and growing. While a doctor can on average see 40 patients a day (that might even be generous), Buoy Health is seeing a patient every 13 seconds. That’s the beauty of chat bots. They can scale much easier than people. They won’t replace people, but the can appropriately direct patients to the right people at the right time. That’s a powerful thing that we need more of in healthcare.

About the author

John Lynn

John Lynn

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com, a network of leading Healthcare IT resources. The flagship blog, Healthcare IT Today, contains over 13,000 articles with over half of the articles written by John. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 20 million times.

John manages Healthcare IT Central, the leading career Health IT job board. He also organizes the first of its kind conference and community focused on healthcare marketing, Healthcare and IT Marketing Conference, and a healthcare IT conference, EXPO.health, focused on practical healthcare IT innovation. John is an advisor to multiple healthcare IT companies. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can be found on Twitter: @techguy.

   

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