Lifelink Systems uses conversational AI to engage patients

The company employs chatbots with natural language to connect with patients on mobile phones. CEO Greg Johnsen touts the ease of the technology for consumers.

While many hospitals and health systems have built and refined patient engagement platforms in recent years, Greg Johnsen says he sees a problem with many.

They’re simply too complicated and the opposite of user-friendly, Johnsen, CEO of Lifelink Systems, told Chief Healthcare Executive in a recent interview.

“We know that digital engagement is key,” Johnsen says.

“The problem is, we’ve spent the last 10, 12, 15 years building engagement systems and modalities that may be feature-rich … but they’re just too hard to use,” he says.

Lifelink Systems, based in the San Francisco bay area, is working to change that by bringing conversational artificial intelligence more broadly to healthcare. Lifelink’s technology enables patients to use their phones to communicate with chatbots to schedule appointments with doctors, go over preparations for surgery, and engage with emergency departments.

Lifelink’s systems don’t require apps to download. Patients communicate with chatbots via texts to their mobile phones. Johnsen calls it the next phase of patient engagement to make the healthcare system easier for patients. “We think that is grounded in conversations, and grounded in chat, and grounded in the mobile phone,” Johnsen says.

The secret sauce is the system’s easy-to-engage conversation tools, he says.

“It’s the opposite of an app or portal or website,” Johnsen says. “This is more like the way humans actually talk to each other and get things done.”

Consumers crave ease

Hospital and health system executives recognize they need to be more consumer-friendly, particularly in the face of growing competition from rivals such as Amazon and CVS. At the American Hospital Association Leadership Summit last month, health leaders repeatedly pointed to the need to make it easier for patients to do everything from scheduling appointments to paying bills.

Johnsen says hospitals and health systems need to look at new technologies with patients in mind, because consumers have greater expectations.

“Consumers will vote on their choice of healthcare provider,” Johnsen says. “A lot of it will be to do with how easy it is to engage the health system.”

While Johnsen touts the natural conversation of Lifelink, the chat and messages are automated. By automating these functions with chatbots, Johnsen says health systems free staff for more important duties, which can alleviate stress for hospitals dealing with staffing shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“‘The main thing is it’s a system that’s designed to scale up and handle millions of conversations so you have a digital workforce around your practice,” Johnsen says. “We think it’s a game changer.”

“It’s about magnifying the workforce at a time when we have nurse shortages and staffing shortages,” he adds. “This is the technology that can scale up and handle whole swaths of interactions and workflow.”

Johnsen says Lifelink’s technology can help ease burdens on staffing by unshackling staff from helping patients fill out forms or sending reminders about upcoming appointments.

“We’re offloading a lot of that work, as much as we can, to smart digital conversations, so humans can move onto empathetic work,” he says.

Johnsen says the text messaging system is more convenient for consumers than asking them to go to apps. Lifelink commissioned a YouGov poll in November that found only 7% of all respondents use a healthcare app regularly. Many patients download healthcare apps and then abandon them, Johnsen says. “They don’t come back to it,” he says.

Using the text-based messages, patients don’t have to memorize passwords or download apps, he says.

‘Flipping the script’

Lifelink is working with several hospitals and health systems, including Banner Health, Baptist Health, Memorial Health System and Jefferson Health. For now, Lifelink is focusing primarily on enterprise delivery systems that have dozens of sites of care.

Lifelink’s chatbots help guide patients trying to find doctors. If a patient is seeking an appointment, for example, the chatbot will ask if the patient already has a primary care doctor, or would like to find one.

The conversational AI technology can easily be modified to communicate with patients who speak languages other than English, Johnsen says.

Conversational AI can help drive inclusion and diversity in clinical trials, he says.

“Once you’re using language to reach people, the ease and speed and lack of obstacles is one way to make technology available to everybody,” he says.

Johnsen also views conversational AI technology as a way to improve health equity by “leveling the playing field for consumers, regardless of socioeconomic status.”

“It’s one of the ways you can be more equitable,” he says. “If you have more conversations, if you’re talking more… you’re more likely to discover opportunities and create more equitable care.”

In the future, Johnsen suggests health systems are going to need to incorporate new metrics to evaluate patient satisfaction. He said systems shouldn’t look at ways to reduce or constrain interactions with patients. Rather, conversational AI and digital technology can help engage patients more often.

At some point, hospital executives should talk about how they are increasing the number of conversations with patients, Johnsen suggests.

“We should be flipping the script,” he says. “We want to measure the number of interactions that help the patient and drive better healthcare outcomes.”