Artifical intelligence-powered 'chatbots' to revolutionise mental health

ubisend speaks to BBH about how chatbots could help to take the pressure off mental health services

AI can help to provide early support for people with mental health problems

Artifical Intelligence-powered ‘chatbots’ could mark a step change in mental health services as they offer a first port of call for patients.

Also known as talkbots and chatterbots; these are computer programmes which conduct a conversation via auditory or textual methods – SMS or voice chat, for example.

Typically used for customer service purposes, the AI-powered chatbots are increasingly being considered as a tool within the health sector.

AI has been building for some time so we understand what we can and can’t do, particularly within mental health

And one company is driving their use within mental health, where they could provide a vital signposting service.

ubisend provides chatbox software to major commercial companies including Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, as well as government agencies.

But it is now hoping to join forces with the NHS to help reduce the cost of medical services and improve access to treatment.

Speaking to BBH, ubisend chief executive, Dean Withey, said: “AI has been building for some time so we understand what we can and can’t do, particularly within mental health.

“Chatbots can help as a first port of contact, for registration to mental health services, support, or admittance.

“When someone is going through a crisis they can feel very alone. There’s a realisation that something is wrong and that’s where AI can be useful.

“Before anyone is ready to speak to a real person, it’s about the ability to have a voice or text chat to discuss what services they might need – at any time of the day or night.

“There’s no barriers or judgement with AI. It’s super personal and you can have a private conversation which the chatbot won’t record or remember.

“That’s where the power with this lies, but if someone does want to make an appointment, it can be programmed with the specifics to direct them to the best place.

“It fits in very much with what the NHS is trying to do – using technology to improve access to services and to make them more efficient.”

Communications specialist at ubisend, Reg Ruse, added: “Someone who initiates contact with mental health services is looking for guidance, help, support, and a safe place; to try and understand what’s normal and what to do if things get worse.

“No amount of technology can replace human contact, but it’s about affirmation and acknowledgement.”

For healthcare operators it is also less expensive to operate than current screening and treatment methods.

There’s no barriers or judgement with AI. It’s super personal and you can have a private conversation which the chatbot won’t record or remember

Reg said: “The NHS could launch a Facebook of WhatsApp messaging page or an SMS system. This could just reach out to people by saying ‘do you want to know more about mental health?’, for example.

“It can then invite the person to call a number or visit a link. That can kick off a conversation.

“Really the cost is minimal.

“There may be some development costs to adjust the software in the way the client wants, or a price-per-text fee, but Facebook and WhatsApp messaging is free, so it is very attractive for cash-strapped health trusts.”

ubisend’s push into the health market comes in the wake of research which predicts that chatbots could save businesses billions of pounds a year, with banking and healthcare the sectors expected to benefit the most.

It fits in very much with what the NHS is trying to do – using technology to improve access to services and to make them more efficient

Responding to customer queries using automated messages for instance, or advising patients on symptoms, could sav £6billion in costs every year across global business by 2022, analysts at Juniper Research forecast.

UK start-up, Babylon, is currently testing chatbots among patients as an alternative option to calling the NHS non-emergency 111 number.

It believes the introduction will save hundreds of thousands of pounds.

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