Chatbots can save you from trying to diagnose that cough yourself

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When a person feels sick, they might start deciding whether it seems serious enough to visit a doctor. However, things like having to get to the doctor’s office, long delays in the waiting room, and the potential difficulty in getting an appointment could discourage that individual from getting prompt treatment. A new AI-powered chatbot called Ada could be the perfect solution for that predicament. Let’s take a look at how Ada and other telemedicine offerings could change the future of health care and what downsides the technology has.

Bot assessment and doctor consultation

Ada is a chatbot that asks users a series of questions and helps determine the potential causes of their symptoms. The technology does not provide a diagnosis but instead gives a health assessment based on how a person responded to the queries posed.

Receiving an assessment through Ada is free. However, people who live in the United Kingdom can pay £18.99 (about $25) to talk to a real doctor over the phone. During that consultation, a patient can send pictures to the physician or provide more details about symptoms.

Although this feature is only offered to people in the United Kingdom, U.K. patients can access it anywhere in the world. That could be useful when traveling abroad.

The price of chatting with a doctor via Ada also includes a prescription if needed. The medication arrives at the user’s doorstep on the same day or the following day, depending on location.

The doctor a person chats with does not automatically link in with the individual’s normal general practitioner, but if the Ada doctor and the patient agree that a prescription is the best course of treatment, the physician asks for the patient’s consent to get in touch with their GP. With patient consent, the Ada doctor can mail a transcript of the conversation to the user’s doctor.

The app developer, based in London and Berlin, recently raised $47 million in funding to keep developing its technology, which features a sophisticated artificial intelligence engine that gets continually smarter through machine learning. It also depends on a deep medical knowledge base that covers thousands of common and rare conditions. Reportedly, more than 1.5 million people have used the app since March. That statistic indicates people embrace the idea of chatbots helping them when they’re sick.

The development team cautions Ada won’t replace doctors. But they hope it will replace relying on Google and WebMD for self-diagnosis.

How Ada differs from other available telemedicine methods

One notable feature of Ada is that the user never has to connect with a doctor (and indeed does not have the option of doing so outside of the United Kingdom). In contrast, many insurance companies and private websites offer virtual doctor visits where people converse with physicians through their computers or smartphones. So wouldn’t it be riskier to take the advice of an AI over that of a real professional?

“It is not where advice comes from, but the quality and relevance of the advice that matters,” points out Dr. Tarik Shaheen, founder and CEO of Iris Telehealth. “There can be good advice from AI and bad advice from AI, just as there can be good or bad advice from a live human being (and yes, even doctors sometimes give bad advice).”

“As our understanding and application of AI in medicine improve, technology should be able to assist in giving more relevant and personalized advice in increasingly difficult and nuanced situations,” says Shaheen.

Iris Telehealth is a physician’s group that connects psychiatrists to patients in real time using secure videoconferencing technology. The service is more focused on allowing ongoing doctor-patient relationships, as opposed to the kind of one-off health care advice that an AI bot might provide.

Your preferences in the kind of telehealth service you choose will really come down to what your health care goals are. Do you want to get one diagnosis and move on? Or are you seeking long-term care?

Statistics from Doctor on Demand, a telemedicine service, show that 18 of the top 20 ailments that cause people to go to hospitals or urgent care clinics for treatment can be treated with telemedicine for a lower cost. Since cost is always a concern, the more reasonable price of a virtual session is undoubtedly attractive.

In the United States, telemedicine has been ready to take off in Texas ever since the governor signed a law in May that permits doctors to treat patients without seeing them first. Previously, physicians in that state had to have seen telemedicine patients face to face first or have another medical professional accompany them during video consultations. Texas was the last state to have that requirement before the new legislation.

Potential legal and health risks

Lawyers anticipate malpractice lawsuits will increase with the rise of telemedicine. In New Jersey, there is a statute that requires doctors practicing medicine in the virtual realm to provide the same standard of care as an in-person visit. If that’s not possible, the virtual doctor has to direct the patient to seek advice from a doctor in the traditional way. However, that specification is only for New Jersey, and there are variations across different states.

Law professionals also bring up how malpractice suits may become more common because people could present with symptoms that remain masked without physical examinations.

Indeed, some telemedicine applications provide patients with tools that let them check their vital signs or shine a light on affected body parts to give doctors clearer views. However, there is always the chance of user error or misreading the data provided by a blood pressure cuff, for example. Those downsides are potentially even more prevalent with chatbots because doctors are absent from the equation.

Because Ada is a free service, people could also become overly dependent on the app and not seek in-person treatment until situations are truly life-threatening. By then, it could be too late to provide the necessary interventions.

As convenient as AI-powered chatbots are, there are some cons associated with them. Ideally, people will use Ada and similar services as a way to gain preliminary insights about their symptoms — not to wholly replace doctor visits.

Kayla Matthews is a technology and energy IT writer whose work has appeared on Motherboard, MakeUseOf, and Triple Pundit.

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