Should We Embrace Technology in Our Medical Contact Centers or Fear It?
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
Throughout the history of the call center industry we’ve looked for ways to help our agents be more effective. In the pre-computer days this often meant physical solutions and electromechanical devices that allowed staff to answer calls faster, record information easier, and organize data more effectively.
Then came rudimentary computers that provided basic call distribution and CTI (computer telephony integration). Computer databases allowed us to retrieve information and store data. Following this we experienced voicemail, IVR (interactive voice response), and automated attendant. More recently we’ve encountered speech-to-text conversion and text-to-speech applications. Then came the chatbots, computerized automatons that allow for basic text and voice communication between machine and people.
Computers are talking with us. Smart phones, too. Consider Siri, Alexa, and all their friends. Technology marches forward. What will happen next?
I just did an online search for Voice AI. Within .64 seconds I received two million results. I’m still working my way through the list (not really), but the first few matches gave me some eye-opening and thought-provoking content to read and watch.
In considering this information, it’s hard to determine what’s practical application for our near future and what’s theoretical potential that might never happen. However, my conclusion is that with advances in chatbot technology, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning, we aren’t far from the time when computer applications will carry on full, convincing conversations with callers, who will think they’re talking with real people.
While many pieces of this puzzle are available today, I submit that we’re not yet to the point where we can have a complete, intelligent dialogue with a computer and not know it. But it will happen. Probably soon.
What Does Voice AI Mean for the Medical Call Center?
Just like all technological advances since the inception of the earliest call centers, we’ll continue to free agents from basic tasks and allow them to handle more complex issues. Technology will not replace agents, but it will shift their primary responsibilities.
Or maybe not.
With the application of voice AI, might we one day have a call center staffed with computer algorithms instead of telephone agents? I don’t know. Anything I say today will likely seem laughable in the future. Either I will have overstretched technology’s potential or underestimated the speed of its advance.
I think I’m okay talking to a computer program to make an appointment with my doctor. And it wouldn’t bother me to call in the evening and converse with a computer as I leave my message for the doctor, nurse, or office staff. However, what concerns me just a tad would be calling a telephone triage number and having a computer give me medical advice.
Yet in considering the pieces of technology available to us today, this isn’t so far-fetched. Proven triage protocols are already defined and stored in a database. Giving them a computerized voice is possible now. And with AI and machine learning, the potential exists for an intelligent interface to provide the conversational bridge between me and the protocols. And this could be the solution to our growing shortage of medical practitioners.
For those of you actually doing telephone triage, you might be laughing right now. Perhaps you’re already implementing this. Or maybe you’re convinced it will never work.
Yet it’s important that we talk about technology and its application in healthcare call centers. Regardless of what happens, the future will certainly be an interesting place.