Using chatbots to enhance healthcare

Photo by Alex Knight

Inflation, rising healthcare costs, workforce shortages, and hospital staff burnout are all putting digital advancements in the centre of the healthcare transformation agenda in Southeast Asia. With consumers placing a higher priority on their health and wellness, existing healthcare systems need a quick reform to improve patient outcomes.

Merakiplace is one company striving to achieve this. Founded by two McKinsey alumni, it launched in December 2021 with its first product, a telehealth platform called “My Doctor”. Since then, it has become a fast-growing player in the Korean Digital Health space, and is currently partnering Sendbird to leverage healthcare chatbots.

SMEhorizon speaks with Woongrae Son, CEO of Merakiplace on his company’s journey and their experience with healthcare chatbots. Sanghee Lee, General Manager of Sendbird APAC, also discusses what role the growth of conversational AI can play in the healthcare sector.

Merakiplace co-founders Woongrae Son and Jaewon Sun. Photo courtesy Merakiplace

Augmenting telehealth processes

According to Son, most virtual visits, or telehealth treatments, in APAC were until recently handled through a phone call between a doctor and a patient. “However, the Korean Ministry of Health announced that the channel of telehealth connection must include a video call which meant all brokerage platforms needed to implement a video call API.

“Such change in regulation was a major challenge as My Doctor needed to provide accessibility to the video chat to both local doctors and patients,” he adds. “We initiated our collaboration with Sendbird after a thorough evaluation of potential providers for implementing video chat within our telehealth platform.”

Lee notes that chatbots are a way to circumvent limitations on quality healthcare resources which can slow the growth of effective services. “Chatbots do this by improving patient engagement through personalized interactions, cost savings via streamlined administrative tasks, and enhanced accessibility for all, including elderly patients, he says.

“Additionally, chatbots enable remote monitoring and chronic disease management, fostering early intervention and better patient outcomes. Their data-driven insights empower healthcare providers to make informed decisions, ultimately enhancing the efficiency and quality of healthcare services.”

Merakiplace partnered with Sendbird after considering the tech support provided, since, as an SME, they had to consider resource management. “They provided localized service in APAC, a very timely correspondence to our requests, and most of all, the implementation was fast,” says Son. Besides pricing, the platform was also able to provide cross-border connections, necessary to facilitate connections between foreign patients and local doctors.

Addressing teething problems

Despite their promise, there were certain challenges faced in onboarding the video chatbot services. “The most prominent challenge was in the complexity of integrating the video chat service into a healthcare environment, requiring stringent security measures and compliance with healthcare regulations,” recalls Son.

“We tackled this by working closely with our development team to implement robust security protocols and conducting thorough testing to ensure patient data protection while the integrated functions assisted users.

“On top of that, we addressed the challenge of user adoption by providing educational resources for both patients and doctors. Some users were unfamiliar with the technology, so we created user-friendly guides to explain how to interact with the video chatbots for various healthcare-related tasks.

“These measures together allowed us to seamlessly integrate Sendbird’s solution into our platform, enhancing user satisfaction and operational efficiency.”

The rewards for such efforts are significant. Lee notes that “one of the most obvious advantages of chatbots is their 24/7 availability, which ensures that patients can access medical guidance and information at any time. This accessibility reduces delays in receiving crucial advice and assistance, particularly during emergencies.

“Chatbots also serve as valuable sources of health education, providing patients with accurate, up-to-date information and educational materials. This allows patients to make informed decisions about their health and encourages them to take an active role in managing their well-being.

“Furthermore, AI-powered chatbots simplify administrative tasks like appointment scheduling, billing inquiries, and insurance coordination, reducing the burden on healthcare professionals. This frees up more time for meaningful doctor-patient interactions,” he concludes.

A future of better healthcare outcomes

Lee is positive that healthcare providers can embrace telehealth and virtual care by expanding services that offer patients real-time access to healthcare professionals through chatbots and video consultations. “To stay ahead, it’s essential to integrate these services seamlessly with conversational interfaces. This approach not only improves accessibility for patients but also streamlines healthcare delivery,” he says.

“Another crucial aspect is taking ownership and responsibility by ensuring your entity adheres to the highest ethical standards and privacy policies recommended by the industry and local law-enforcing bodies.

“The entire digital healthcare ecosystem needs to step up to ensure patient data management is given the priority treatment that it truly deserves,” he emphasises. “It needs to educate  consumers on how exactly their data will be used is the first step in ensuring data privacy and protection. This also involves giving consumers a chance to decline consent.

“Technology companies need to build appropriate technical safeguards into their healthcare AI solutions to prevent misuse of data. Governments must frame and implement up-to-date legal frameworks around patient data management to ensure there is a common law for all organisations involved.”

Son is similar optimistic from his company’s experience, finding the onboarding process smooth and easy. Good partnerships with providers who meet specific needs are essential in overcoming the challenges of adopting third-party APIs.