by Luma Health | Needing to see a doctor is hard. Being able to see one shouldn’t be.

Have you ever talked to a customer service rep online through a pop-up chat? Chances are, a chatbot probably answered your questions.

Chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI) are hot topics in the tech world. From being referenced in our movies, and entertainment, articles on the topic show up daily. A recent one even talked about how two Facebook chatbots created their own language. And despite the cool things AI can do, doctors still debate its role in healthcare. Some doctors even think AI “threatens” to replace tech-heavy fields like radiology.

Interesting foreign territory, isn’t it?

In this three-part series, we’re going to demystify chatbots and their role in healthcare. This first post will answer the question:

“What is a chatbot?”


Chatbot: The Basics

To summarize, a chatbot is

  • a type of AI
  • a computer program

This means they’re programmed to respond to a conversation in a useful, directed way. In essence, they’re supposed to simulate a real conversation like you and I would have.

Feeling hungry? Here’s Denny’s chatbot.


Let Denny’s feed you.


Now take a look at Ted. Ted’s a chatbot from TDAmeritrade and he’s here to answer my question on opening a 401K:


 Ted: TDAmeritrade chatbot


What’s Ted’s goal?

Simulate a real conversation. This works well in customer service because most people have similar questions.


How do chatbots work?

What happens in the time between you send a question and Ted responds to it?

The computer that receives your message tries to “understand” it. Then, (ideally) it answers with a canned, targeted response.

People want their answers delivered immediately, and chatbots do just that.

But do they really “understand” what you write?

The quick answer is no.

What they really do is look for keywords and analyze the relationship of those words to others in the sentence. In fact, you don’t even need to write in full sentences when you interact with a chatbot. You’d just need the right keywords.

For example, “How do I open a 401K?” and “Open 401K” would give you the same answer from Ted.


Chatbots Don’t Get Context

Most customer service support bots like Ted don’t remember what you asked two minutes ago. That is, they’re not built to pick up context in a conversation.

While people are great at keeping the context of a conversation, chatbots aren’t. They aren’t built for remembering words.

Let’s say you first asked Ted, “Do you have 401K accounts?” and then asked, “How do I open one?” Ted wouldn’t “know” you mentioned 401Ks from before. See my follow questions below:



Where Do Chatbots Excel?

Ted, like most other chatbots, do well in other areas.

He can address most questions people ask, and he can create a better customer service experience at a fraction of the cost.

Customers get their questions answered right away and TDAmeritrade’s customer service team can focus on the tasks computers can’t achieve. While chatbots are pretty efficient, some people think their impact on the job force won’t be good.


Chatbots Are Everywhere

Whether you’ve messaged a chatbot online or now, you’ve still probably interacted with Siri or Alexa. They’re chatbots, too, but they can answer a wider variety of questions on different topics. They can even book you a restaurant reservation.

So — feeling good about bots? You know what chatbots are, how they work, and what they do well. In our next post (which you can find here): we’ll cover about how chatbots are being used in healthcare today, how they’re improving clinic workflows, patient engagement, and the delivery of care (really exciting stuff!).

In the meantime, share this piece with your favorite people. Or give us a ♡ if you need a Denny’s bot in your life.

Written by Tashfeen Ekram, MD.
Tashfeen is a radiologist, self-taught coder, healthcare innovator and Co-Founder of Luma Health. Contact him on Twitter at @tashfeenekramMD.

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