Jul 21 • 4 min read

Research from Temple’s Sezgin Ayabakan shows chatbots could be helpful in alleviating the burden on the healthcare system during the current COVID-19 pandemic

PHILADELPHIA, July 21, 2020 — Since early March, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a near-unprecedented amount of stress on our healthcare system. Hospitals are overbooked. Healthcare employees are overworked. And with cases continuing to rise, there does not seem to be immediate relief on the way.

However, according to new research from Sezgin Ayabakan, Temple University’s Fox School of Business faculty member, assistance could come from an unlikely source: chatbots.

Recently accepted for publication in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, “User reactions to COVID-19 screening chatbots from reputable providers” analyzes how chatbots can ease the burden on medical providers and our healthcare system by screening patients for COVID-19 symptoms. The paper is co-authored by Fox School doctoral candidate Mohammad Rahimi, as well as Indiana University Kelley School of Business faculty members Alan Dennis and Antino Kim.

As part of the study, 371 participants viewed a COVID-19 screening session with a hotline agent—either a human or a chatbot. 

“We showed a vignette to half of the participants and said, ‘This conversation is between a an individual and a chatbot agent’ and then with the others, we said, ‘This conversation is between an individual and a human agent,’” says Ayabakan, an assistant professor of Management Information Systems. “We wanted to see how people perceived this conversation. We tried to capture their bias.”

According to Ayabakan, as long as the chatbot was able to perform its job as well as the human agent, users viewed the chatbot no differently than the human agent. While the study showed that users initially had a negative bias toward chatbots, that became a moot point if the healthcare provider was a trusted source. So, for instance, in this study, the provider was identified as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“What we found was that if they trusted the provider, their ability to trust the (provider’s) chatbot service increased greatly. So we found that folks seem to really trust the CDC, which then increased the trust they had in the online screening services,” Ayabakan says. “For this to work, we really need to emphasize the source or provider, so that participants will use the chatbot and follow its advice.”

The research aligns with findings from a recent study from Ayabakan’s colleague and fellow Fox School faculty member, Xueming Luo. His article “Machines versus Humans: The Impact of AI Chatbot Disclosure on Customer Purchases” was recently published in Marketing Science, and it found that chatbots are especially effective provided the chatbot does not reveal its a chatbot.

Moving forward, Ayabakan says he believes his research could be helpful in guiding the healthcare industry, especially since screening for COVID-19 is likely to continue for some time.

“The main goal is that we hope chatbots can be used to screen patients, so the healthcare workers can deal with more severely ill patients rather than screening folks with mild conditions over the phone,” Ayabakan says. “There is a huge burden on the healthcare system. When we did this experiment in April, we did it with the hope that our findings might help alleviate that burden.”


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CDCCenters for Disease Control and PreventionChatbotsCOVID-19Journal of the American Medical Informatics AssociationMohammad RahimiPatient OutcomesSezgin Ayabakan