Microsoft service helps healthcare organizations develop and deploy virtual health assistants

Every year, tens of millions of adults in the U.S. are asked to contact Quest Diagnostics for healthcare-related services that range from routine blood work to complex genetic and molecular testing. In today’s increasingly self-service healthcare industry, details such as where to go when and what to do beforehand are typically up to patients to figure out for themselves.

“They are really learning how to drive their healthcare experience and they have a lot of questions,” said Jason O’Meara, senior director of architecture for Quest Diagnostics in Cary, North Carolina. “To find answers to their questions,” he added, “many people don’t want to browse websites anymore if they can get to their answer more directly using a bot.”

Quest Diagnostics recently built and deployed a bot using a preview of the Microsoft Healthcare Bot service that helps people who visit the Quest Diagnostics website during call center hours find testing locations, schedule appointments and get answers to non-medical questions such as whether to fast before a blood draw or when to expect results. If the bot is unable to answer a question, or the user gets frustrated, the bot will transfer the user, along with the context of the conversation, to a person who can help – all without having the user pick up the phone.

Microsoft announced Thursday that the Microsoft Healthcare Bot service is now generally available in the Azure Marketplace. The cloud service includes out-of-the-box healthcare intelligence such as the ability to triage complex medical questions and a set of prebuilt services including the handoff feature and a symptom checker. Customers can extend and customize the bot to solve their unique business problems. Built-in privacy controls include the ability for bots to learn and adapt to user preferences and for users to ask bots what they know about them and to ask to be forgotten.

“You don’t have to start from scratch,” said Hadas Bitran, head of Microsoft Healthcare Israel. “It has healthcare content knowledge such as a symptom checker and information about conditions, medications and procedures. It has language models trained to understand healthcare terminology. It understands if you are complaining or if you are asking about what doctor you should see or if you are thinking about side effects of a medication.”

Virtual assistant for healthcare

Bitran, who worked on Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana prior to joining the health group, and her team, launched the Healthcare Bot service as a research project in 2017 to determine the feasibility of a toolbox that would allow healthcare organizations to quickly and efficiently build virtual assistants tuned to their brands, along with the workflows and terminology unique to the healthcare industry.

“We were asking ourselves, ‘What are the biggest pain points of healthcare customers? How can we best help self-serve healthcare users? What would be the use cases that would be most interesting for customers,’” Bitran said.

Premera Blue Cross, a customer who used the service during the private preview stage of the project, built and deployed a bot, Premera Scout, to help consumers easily look up the status of claims and find answers to questions about benefits and services available from the health insurance provider.

“People didn’t need to call the call center and wait on the line anymore,” Bitran said. In turn, she added, customer-service employees at Premera Blue Cross now have more time to focus on complicated requests.

Building compliant health assistants

The Microsoft research and development team also knew that any bot service for the healthcare industry would need to leverage a secure cloud platform with built-in privacy controls and tools to support the user’s compliance with regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, and the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR.

The compliance support helps the healthcare industry keep pace with a larger trend of companies deploying conversational AI as a go-to interface for consumers to seek and find information. Quest Diagnostics, for example, found in a user-experience survey that about 50 percent of their clients would prefer to engage with a chatbot instead of a search box or frequently-asked-questions feature on a website, said O’Meara.

The Microsoft Healthcare Bot service enables organizations in the healthcare industry to meet the demand for bots that provide timely information, freeing up medical professionals to treat and care for their patients, noted Bitran.

“Virtual assistants will never replace medical professionals,” she said, adding that bots built with the Microsoft Healthcare Bot service never make a diagnosis or offer treatment. “That is not what they are for. Rather, virtual assistants help ease the burden from the healthcare system, helping medical professionals optimize their time.”


John Roach writes about Microsoft research and innovation. Follow him on Twitter.

Top image: Photo by Quest Diagnostics.