Developers Build Custom Chatbot to Improve Patient Communications

A Modern Approach to Patient Interactions


Chat-based technology is mainstream in modern customer service. Chatbots, often used by online retailers, are computer programs designed to simulate conversation with human users. Often based on keywords and common topics, there is frequently not a human on the other end.

The healthcare field was slow to integrate this type of communication with patients due to the nuanced and complex needs of patient communications. And yet, for many people, including those with hearing impairments, this is a preferred communication method.

Northwestern Medicine Developers Launch Virtual Agent

In 2020, a new chatbot feature was launched on the MyNM login page for Northwestern Medicine patients. This portal lets Northwestern Medicine patients send messages to physicians, access lab reports, request refills and manage appointments. In 2021, the chatbot was implemented on to help patients navigate more efficiently.

Innovation Built In-House

Developers identified the need to enable the chatbot to triage patients, answering some questions based on keywords and sending others to a live agent if necessary.

To create this process, developers integrated the Microsoft chatbot platform with the Cisco Enterprise Chat and Email (ECE) service, which manages the live call center. On the back end, several different bots communicate with each other so users can switch from virtual assistant to human. But on the user side, it’s a single seamless interaction.

To preserve any previously shared information, the Northwestern Medicine application captures the bot transcript and passes it to the live agent. That way, patients don’t need to share the same details all over again.

What's Next

As chatbot technology continues to advance, Northwestern Medicine now also uses the chatbot to connect patients with the area of care they need without going through the call center. It can connect a patient with the right care location and even screen them for common health issues like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The chatbot also enables users to request a real-time call back or connect to pay a bill.

This new resource will support the Northwestern Medicine workforce and help patients find information, submit service requests and more, no matter how they choose to contact Northwestern Medicine.