Developers Build Custom Chatbot Integration to Enhance Patient Communications


Northwestern Medicine developers integrate Microsoft bot platform with Cisco Enterprise Chat and Email to offer a seamless communications experience for patients.

In health care, it’s easy to find innovation in the technology and devices used inside the ERs, ORs and ICUs. But when it comes to an area as broad as patient communications, innovation happens behind the scenes, even though it is just as critical in the pursuit of unmatched patient care. When leadership at Northwestern Medicine announced a key initiative for the 2019-2020 fiscal year — “automation for the patient experience” — three developers saw an opportunity to build a custom application to give patients a richer communications experience.

In 2020, a new chatbot feature was launched within the MyNM® app, the patient portal that lets Northwestern Medicine patients send messages to physicians, access lab reports, request refills and manage appointments. Patients can use the chatbot to ask questions based on popular topics. While this software is mainstream in today’s tech-forward world, Northwestern Medicine developers noticed that patients interfacing with the bot wanted to speak to a live agent via chat — a microservice used by retail giants like Amazon and Best Buy, but harder to find in health systems. 

Innovation Built In-House

To allow patients to transition from a chatbot to a live agent within an existing chat window, the developers had to integrate the Microsoft bot 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 one seamless interaction, making the Northwestern Medicine services even more accessible and user-friendly. Now, patients can transition to a live agent via chat with the click of a button.

Creating a Seamless Transition

To preserve any previously shared background information, the application captures the bot transcript and passes it to the live agent. That way, patients are not required to share the same details all over again. It also allows them to request a real-time call back. Before May 2021, when Northwestern Medicine launched a version of this microservice, patients had one option for reaching a live agent: dialing into the call center.

What's Next

The team involved in creating the live chat feature relied on the Agile framework to quickly build and scale it. Developers are currently exploring additional features, such as password reset using two-factor authentication to verify identities, appointment scheduling by connecting to the Epic API, and even geolocation services for finding care centers. The goal is to provide patients with not just a passive bot, but a consistent and intuitive experience, no matter how they choose to contact Northwestern Medicine.