Track services

UGA researchers are tracking the use of chatbots for public health response activities during the pandemic

If you’ve been to a clinic for a COVID vaccine or test in the past two years, you’ve likely interacted with a chatbot. Chatbots are computer programs designed to simulate a conversation with human users. Scalable to answer thousands of questions simultaneously, easily accessible to the public, and enabling social distancing, chatbots were ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But not all chatbots are created equal, according to Elena Karahanna, University of Georgia Emeritus Research Professor in the Department of Management Information Systems at Terry College of Business. Karahanna, who studies the use of chatbots and social media in healthcare settings, has published an analysis of how chatbots have been used in response to COVID-19.

“Many off-the-shelf tools developed during the pandemic offer customization options so that organizations and agencies can tailor them to their needs,” said Karahanna, who also holds the C. Herman and Mary Distinguished Chair Virginia Terry. Administration. “Our study indicates what should be predefined and what customization options would be useful for the next pandemic or public health crisis.”

The article, co-authored with former Terry Ph.D. student Parham Amiri, lists new ways chatbots have been deployed in the public health response to this pandemic and offers strategies for responding to future health crises. “Chatbot use cases in the COVID-19 public health response” appeared in the February edition of Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.

What are chatbots used for?

Chatbots have helped healthcare departments answer questions patients might be too embarrassed to ask in person, provide healthcare education, or schedule appointments. But there was no large-scale deployment of chatbots to address the same health challenge until 2020, when health departments, hospitals and government agencies implemented chatbots to assess risk and disseminate accurate information quickly.

Karahanna and Amiri analyzed the use of public health response chatbots featured in English language research articles in 2020 and 2021. Their sample included 61 COVID-specific chatbots across 30 countries. They weren’t looking to list all the chatbots in use, but to take a snapshot of how they were being used.

They discovered that bots were used in a few common ways.

One of the things chatbots are good at is handling many parallel questions from thousands and thousands of users simultaneously. With the rapidly changing information landscape about the virus during the pandemic, there was confusion and a huge need for information. … Doctors’ offices and public health agencies were overloaded with phone calls. Chatbots have expanded their capability by offloading some of these repetitive questions from humans to a machine so humans can handle more complicated tasks.”

Elena Karahanna, University of Georgia Emeritus Research Professor

Hospitals and public health organizations have used robots to assess risk and triage patients to prevent exposed people from flooding emergency rooms. They also collected broad symptom data to identify trouble spots, while others allowed patients to schedule tests or vaccines. The fourth group of robots connected doctors, nurses and public health officials in rural areas with their country’s central health ministry.

User anonymity was one thing that set bots apart from country to country. Some cultures place less importance on privacy, and bots in those countries provide more tracking services because interactions were not anonymous. It wouldn’t work everywhere, Karahanna said.

Decisions about anonymity are made on an agency-by-agency basis, as using a chatbot that violates privacy expectations could result in an unused tool.

This extensive experimentation with the use of chatbots during this pandemic is helping the public health establishment to prepare for the next health crisis.

“The content is pandemic specific, but now we know what will work,” Karahanna said. “We can provide guidelines on what to build.”

Knowing what is needed for a response can also minimize duplication efforts and improve bot quality.

“Chatbot technology is improving, but during the pandemic many of them were built very quickly to meet urgent needs, and they weren’t as user-friendly or sophisticated,” Karahanna said. “We can learn what we need and eventually develop modules that can be customized for different organizations so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel next time.”


Journal reference:

Amiri, P & Karahanna, E., (2022) Chatbot use cases in the Covid-19 public health response. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.