Bots: From COVID’s First Responder to Hero Network

COVID-19’s been tough on first responders, globally. In early March, when the virus first crept into Denmark, calls to Copenhagen’s Emergency Medical System doubled to 2,000 a day. To handle the overload, they opened a second call center to try to allay fears – and dispatch EMS ambulances, when necessary. Fortunately, it didn’t take them long to realize they needed responses to FAQs, and a way to triage the patients who needed help, NOW. A year earlier, Microsoft Azure had already developed a Healthcare Bot that blended AI with natural language processing to help organizations support virtual health assistant scenarios. So, working with Microsoft’s Healthcare Bot Service team, Copenhagen installed its COVID-19 bot in mid-March, “responding” to 30,000 calls on its Day 1; soon after it was rolled-out nationwide.

Other countries using Microsoft’s bot include Italy, which today uses it to standardize the dissemination of COVID-19 information, but has plans to use it to help manage patients’ chronic conditions. In Finland, within a matter of weeks, they co-developed the Coronabot with mental health professionals, to query the 73,000 patients who used it about their symptoms (in Finnish, English, Somali, Arabic, and Russian), responding with info on whether or where to seek treatment; they also provide content and exercises to help manage anxiety. In Israel, in less than a day, the largest acute care facility in the country created “Corey,” its COVID-19 bot; and within weeks served over 30,000 people with 412,000 messages.

One of the first companies to create a health-focused chatbot in the United States was Andrew Le’s Bouy Health, which announced its symptom checker in early February. Funded with $29 million, the AI-driven chatbot was originally designed to help patients self-diagnose and triage to their appropriate care, with “everything you need to know about every symptom A to Z.” It’s now the go-to site for Massachusetts’ residents concerned they may be COVID-positive. Like Bouy, Providence Health was in the process of developing a “general purpose” health chatbot when along came COVID. So, working with Microsoft, in early March the system repurposed their chatbot, “Grace,” to deal with COVID, systemwide. Grace quickly began handling over 150,000 messages a day, primarily from “the worried well,” who were concerned that they might have COVID, and might otherwise just show up in doctors’ offices or their hospitals. Based on the patient’s responses to Grace’s questions on their “Coronavirus Assessment Tool,” she can also direct patients to a $49 telehealth visit to allow for a closer examination.

Besides being deployed by hospitals, the CDC Foundation announced the creation of “Clara – the coronavirus self-checker,” on March 23rd. Designed in partnership with Microsoft, Clara’s focus is to minimize the number of patients who have cold or flu-like symptoms from accessing “limited medical resources.” In all, within just a few months, the Microsoft Healthcare Bot Service has deployed 1,230 instances of COVID-19 bots to 18 million individual users, serving up 160 million messages.

The most recent entrant into the COVID-19 family of chatbots is the “CoVIg-19 Plasma Bot,” not surprisingly hosted by Microsoft. Just announced on April 20th, the Bot was created in tandem with the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance, a group of scientists, pharma companies, and other stakeholders seeking to recruit donations for plasma research. The idea behind the site is that with nearly 2.5 million COVID cases worldwide, (hopefully) there will soon be over 2 million COVID survivors, with antibodies in their “convalescent plasma” to help fight the virus. Unlike other researchers who are exploring transfusing plasma directly into high-risk COVID patients, the Alliance aims to recruit survivors to donate their plasma, so that at larger scale, they can make a potential treatment called polyclonal hyperimmune globulin (H-Ig) which will concentrate the antibodies into a medicine. The bot will serve as a platform for COVID survivors to identify if they qualify to donate their plasma (not everyone does), and where to go to donate it. The game plan is that once enough plasma is donated, and pooled with that of other plasma donors, processed, and concentrated into a liquid that contains a high level of antibodies, the clinical testing will begin. And, once it’s determined that the H-Ig treatment is safe and effective, it will be presented to the FDA for approval, then manufactured at a larger scale to be used as a treatment in hospitals globally.

Already both the CDC and the UK’s HS Blood and Transplant organization are encouraging people who have recovered from COVID-19 to donate plasma, and time is of the essence: THIS is the time for our Survivors to become our HERO NETWORK in the war against COVID, as only they can.

by Mimi Grant, President, Adaptive Business Leaders (ABL) Organization – Round Tables and Events for CEOs of Technology and Healthcare Companies