NHS Tests Flu Vaccine Scheduling by a Sensely-Developed Virtual Assistant Which Could Foreshadow Wider Use for COVID-19 Treatments

Sensely’s virtual assistant, Olivia, has successfully booked more than 1,000 flu vaccinations through the Ask NHS mobile and web apps in the UK. The solution was part of a pilot project undertaken by GP practices in Buckinghamshire, Brent, and Greenwich. More than 375,000 NHS patients had already used Ask NHS for a variety of services ranging from symptom checking to appointment booking.

The flu shot scheduling pilot could be a precursor to using Ask NHS for patients to book appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations in the future. Sensely reports it is developing COVID-specific tools which will be available in 2021.

Dr Rebecca Rosen, GP in Greenwich, London told MobiHealthNews: “We worked closely with the Sensely team to enable patients to book into flu clinics without having to call the practice. We text patients in batches and encourage them to book online or through the Ask NHS app. This has freed up receptionist time and enables patients to pick a time that suits them.”

Automating Patient Self Service

Sensely reported in a news release that “as many as 40% of bookings were made using Ask NHS rather than waiting in phone queues to speak to clinic staff.” Adam Odessky, CEO of Sensely, commented, “during the pandemic, more people than ever are getting flu shots — but that places an enormous strain on clinics, and those challenges will only increase as we roll out COVID-19 vaccines.”

The Ask NHS app enabled patients to check their eligibility and schedule the vaccination if they qualified. “The tool also allows high-risk patients to be prioritised based on symptoms or underlying health issues.” In addition, access to the eligibility check and scheduling was not limited to clinic office hours but could be accessed at any time.

Conversational Assistants and Demand Surges

In a virtual conference hosted by Voice First Health in late March 2020, Voicebot’s Bret Kinsella made an observation about how healthcare providers were suddenly adopting conversational virtual assistants to deal with surging inbound questions from patients. “When we think about a virus going into a crowd, some percentage of that crowd will have symptoms severe enough that they need treatment. What they would normally do is go into the healthcare system. Sometimes they would wind up in the emergency room or sometimes talk to their family physician. But, what we are seeing here is the pipes [going into the system due to COVID] are being overwhelmed. This is a capacity shock.”

Kinsella added, “The healthcare system is not able to take the inbound [volume] whether it’s the physical people arriving at the hospitals or doctor’s offices or the inbound phone calls. I know a number of people who have interacted with the healthcare system recently were told not to come to the doctor’s office or the emergency rooms, but instead, call first. That is one of the ways they are trying to deal with a spike in demand. When they are diverting patients to these channels they find they don’t have enough people manning their call centers to handle all of these inbound questions…We have had the humans who are answering questions but we now have the chatbots that are answering questions as well. That’s been a tremendous benefit…The chatbot is offloading some of this [volume surge] and directing people to the appropriate resources.”

Sensely’s Odessky commented, “By using next-gen digital tools as part of an omnichannel strategy, we’re empowering patients to take ownership of their healthcare journey, and protect their families while easing the burden on hardworking doctors and nurses.” Virtual assistants have been around for some time but it may be COVID-19 that finally makes them mainstream in healthcare for patient services.


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