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The chatbot opportunity in healthcare

Blogger series graphic showing a nurse and a patient looking at Surface device.

Chatbots is a popular term in the customer service industry; and one I’m becoming increasingly familiar with as I complete my online Christmas shopping, and book my last-minute break in the sun. We’re beginning to recognise chatbots as a service that’s always friendly, helpful, and most importantly, available 24/7.

It’s not hard to see why this innovation triggers excitement in the NHS. Chatbots can ease staffing issues, triage patients to the correct services, and source intelligent information for patients to their smart devices whenever they need it.

For the non-developer community, let’s go back to basics quickly.

A chatbot refers to a computer programme that can read and respond in human language. It’s able to answer queries and do basic tasks as directed. Chatbots are programmed to understand specific questions and give an instant solution. AI and machine learning are the underlying concepts that support these chatbots and make them possible.

The chatbot opportunity in healthcare

Chatbots are gradually being adopted into the healthcare industry and are generally in the early phases of implementation. Market research estimates that the global chatbot market will reach $1.23 billion by 2025.

One example where chatbots could have a huge impact on the NHS is reducing the burden on incorrectly used services in the NHS, through effective triage and providing intelligent information at times of need to patients. Last year at 46 hospital trusts, more than 50% of patients left A&E without receiving any medical treatment at all. At four trusts that figure reached a staggering 90%. Patients need information at hand, and advice on where to access the right services for what they need, whenever they need it.

The Microsoft Healthcare Bot service can help the NHS build and deploy an AI-powered, compliant, conversational healthcare experience at scale. The service combines built-in medical intelligence with natural language capabilities, extensibility tools, and compliance constructs, allowing the NHS to give patients access to trusted and relevant healthcare services and information. Give it a try here.

Three women and one man standing in a line on their smartphones, leaning against a window. AI in healthcare-chatbot opportunity


The best examples of the NHS utilising chatbot technology come from the centre itself. NHS England has undertaken a digital transformation for the funding of patient care. The current approach is problematic as there’s a high reliance on subjective decisioning for the funding submission. There’s currently a 75% rejection rate for funding of a continuous care package, which is governed by statutory rules published by the Department of Health and Social Services.

Microsoft partner Df2020 has prototyped an alternative solution based on scripted chatbots. This is designed for consistent, timely, and more accurate decisions, underpinned by a full audit trail for transparency and traceability. This Conversation-as-a-Service approach has challenged conventional thinking within NHS England as has replaced form-filling that is dependent upon subjective decisions. Df2020’s innovation is being considered as part of the wider strategy including a local versus national solution, and a joined-up solution with Social Services.

“The complexity of our processes means that we can’t be certain that patients get high quality and reliable responses from us. We’re making lots of traditional changes including improving training and seeking to simplify procedures, but we have concerns that this won’t be enough on its own. That’s why we’ve started to explore how AI can help. Our work with Df2020 has helped us understand what’s possible. It’s building our confidence and expertise to test the technology in our environment.”

Sasha Karakusevic, NHS Horizons’ leading transformational change in health and care

Chatbots supporting mental health

Code4Health is an initiative supported by NHS England and NHS Digital to enable the best use of digital tools and technology. One project showcases the importance of Chatbots in mental health. The demand for access to mental health services is higher than the capacity to service it, so effective triage is vital. In one month over 1.2 million people accessed NHS mental health services. Currently clinicians triage using questionnaires when a person presents to an NHS service. The Mental Health Chatbot, based on Microsoft Azure, replicates existing practice and meets NICE guidelines. Clinicians can gather information at scale, in a way that it sensitive to patient needs and confidentiality, in an out-of-clinic setting that can be preferred by many experiencing mental health problems.

“A person concerned about their mental health no longer needs to attend an NHS site to share clinically relevant data. We estimate that the chatbot will save two hours of a patient’s time, and one hour of a clinician’s, for every instance of triage.”

Code4Health spokesperson

This is just the beginning of the rise of chatbots. If done well, they will seamlessly integrate into our lives to help us self-manage our care and improve our experience within the NHS.

Learn more

Getting started with the bot framework

Build a chatbot in under 3 minutes

Kelly Limonte headshotAbout the author

Kelly is the Healthcare Industry Manager at Microsoft UK, working with transformational digital partners and NHS customers to pilot solutions for collaborative working and empowering everyone to do more. She has 15 years’ experience working alongside the NHS, and is passionate about the power technology has to create positive change in healthcare.