Patients at Groningen University’s teaching hospital UMCG who ask doctors questions in writing are being answered by a chatbot using artificial intelligence, in what the hospital says is a first in Europe.
An AI application included in patients’ digital records allows the chatbot to scan the relevant information and formulate a response. This draft answer is then checked by the relevant healthcare professional and sent on.
The UMCG says it expects the new system will “significantly reduce the administrative burden on doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers”.
“It’s wonderful to see what artificial intelligence is capable of,” said the university’s chief medical information officer Tom van der Laan.
“But healthcare remains human work: there is always a doctor or nurse who checks the answer before we send it. Artificial intelligence can support the work and make it easier, but healthcare professionals are irreplaceable, for the moment at least.”
Every week, patients submit over 1,200 written questions to UMCG, ranging from pain management and being allowed to exercise or work again after surgery. “It’s very simple,” says Van der Laan. “If healthcare providers have to spend less time on these administrative tasks, there will be more time for the patient.”
The system, which has undergone trials over the past few months, is not a self-learning system and cannot learn from patient data to ensure privacy, he said.
Similar systems are already being used in several hospitals in the US, where the experience has been positive, Van der Laan said. “Artificial intelligence not only appears to provide more informative and comprehensive answers but does so with more empathy. We expect to have the same positive experiences in the Netherlands,” he said.
Van der Laan expects the role of AI in healthcare to expand in the current years. “AI can also, for example, create a patient-friendly summary of a surgery report, or write a discharge letter for a family doctor,” he said.
The system is likely to be expanded to other hospitals in the Netherlands in the coming months.
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