Chatbots, robotics to help ease manpower crunch in healthcare sector

Chatbots, robotics to help ease manpower crunch in healthcare sector

"I am having chest pains. Should I go to A&E?" - chatbots that can answer questions such as these may soon be a reality. Chan Luo Er with the details.

SINGAPORE: "I am having chest pains. Should I go to A&E?" - chatbots that can answer questions such as these may soon be a reality.

If you have to make a trip to the emergency department, the chatbot could even give you a queue number based on the severity of your symptoms.

In the future, bots powered by artificial intelligence may even be able to diagnose illnesses and tell a patient if their chest pains were due to a heart attack or heartburn.

Such chatbots are one of the healthcare solutions that Singapore is exploring to battle an ageing population, a rise in chronic disease and a shrinking workforce.

To ease users into the chatbot system, director of Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS) Chua Chee Yong said the system could first be used during visits to the doctor. 

"While waiting to consult the doctors, this could mean doing a questionnaire, but behind the questionnaire is a smart chatbot that will ask you a few questions," he said, adding that this could build confidence in using chatbots.

Mr Chua was speaking on Friday (Jul 13) during a media briefing on new national HealthTech initiatives, which IHiS later unveiled during the National Health IT Summit held at the Singapore Expo on Tuesday.

By end of this year, a panel of accredited health chatbot solution providers will be made available to public sector healthcare professionals, IHiS said. These professionals could then work with partners to develop chatbot solutions and pilot them within their institutions.


The chatbots will also be customised to understand the Singapore's healthcare system, colloquialisms and Singlish.

Terms such “GP”, which is commonly used to refer to general practitioners here, could be something that needs to be specified, as “family physician” or “doctor” is used in other countries, Mr Chua said.

“We need to make the chatbot simple, so consumers can accept it, and make it easy to use, and obviously understand some of the local colloquial language and terminology,” Mr Chua said.

Dr Ali Parsa, chief executive of babylon Health, which has a chatbot that can diagnose, said getting users to accept the technology was a challenge.

“We have many who accept it, and embrace it, and some who find it suspicious, who need more time to adjust and to accept. The reality is that waiting for innovators and laggards to agree to use the technology takes a long time,” he said.


The healthcare sector will also be developing a Robotics Middleware Framework (RMF) for Healthcare, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong announced on Tuesday.

The RMF will quicken the adoption and coordination of robotics innovations, sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, he said.

“By enabling different technology systems within and outside of healthcare to ‘talk’ and work with each other, it creates more opportunities for innovation, cross-sector collaborations, and the deployment of IoT to bring care closer to our citizens, at scale,” Mr Gan said.

The initiative is a research and development effort led by the Centre for Healthcare Assistive and Robotics Technology (CHART) and IHiS, involving government and industry partners.

There is a need for the healthcare sector to collaborate more widely to solve difficult common problems, Mr Gan added.

“In some of these collaborations, we can involve private sector players. We ought to think how we can apply technology and innovate at the systems level, beyond individual institutions which invented it,” he said.


At the summit, healthcare concepts by the top 20 finalists from the inaugural National HealthTech Challenge were also on display.

Among them: A vending machine to dispense medicines such as allergy and diarrhoea medicines that require the approval of a pharmacist; a wireless call button that can be used by warded patients who do not have the use of their hands; and a scanner that can help prevent foot ulcers and limb amputation for patients with diabetes. 

Dr Lee Kheng Hock, medical director of community hospital Bright Vision Hospital, said the foot-screening scanner, which checks for poor blood supply, pressure points, and ulcers, would not require a high level of training to use.

“This would take a big load off overworked doctors and nurses,” he said.

Source: CNA/ja(hm)