Veterans Affairs Launches First Chatbot to Field COVID-19 Questions

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The bot was developed and deployed via Microsoft’s Healthcare Bot platform.

The Veterans Affairs Department recently deployed a coronavirus chatbot to help veterans and their caregivers find answers to pressing questions triggered amid the pandemic.

Built in under a month via the Microsoft Healthcare Bot platform, the new, conversational tool marks a first for the agency and can be accessed around the clock to triage symptoms related to COVID-19, and offer targeted responses regarding testing options, stimulus payments, telehealth, scheduling, prescription refills and more, through prompts users can click through based on their needs.

“VA contact centers have seen a significant increase in calls from veterans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This surge in calls drove the rapid development of VA’s first chatbot,” officials wrote in a blog post. “Chatbot allows veterans access to important information from virtually anywhere, at any time.”

The agency used Microsoft’s Healthcare Bot service, which the tech giant recently offered up to those “on the frontline” free of charge, to help eliminate bottlenecks in the health system induced by the worldwide coronavirus crisis. But VA isn’t the first to turn to the chatty, automated tools during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially harnessed Microsoft’s capabilities in late March, through the launch of its own Coronavirus Self-Checker chatbot, which helps initially screen Americans who feel like they might have COVID-19. And the two are not alone.

“Since March, health organizations have created 1,680 COVID-19 self-assessment bots based on the Microsoft Healthcare Bot service, reaching 33 million individuals and serving more than 336 million messages,” a Microsoft spokesperson told Nextgov Thursday. “In the case of the VA, we believe use of Microsoft’s Healthcare Bot Platform has the capability to help support veterans’ needs for COVID-related information while moderating call volumes at VA contact centers during the time of the pandemic.”

The official went on to note that while the VA’s chatbot incorporates the same CDC triage symptom checker script, as published and updated on GitHub by CDC, “it also includes additional veteran-specific content in the form of [frequently asked questions].” 

VA’s chatbot kicks off a user session with the question: “What do you need help with today?” The user can choose from veteran-specific topic areas such as COVID-19 prevention; COVID-19 testing at VA; my current COVID-19 symptoms (which appears to route to the CDC triage symptom checker); health care, appointments and prescriptions; debt, copay and financial concerns; benefits and claims; and anxiety and related claims. The chatbot tailors new options and questions based on the user’s answers, which can subsequently be used to generate further information. 

“This chatbot is custom-built by the VA, using built-in templates for healthcare-specific use cases like COVID-19 and informed with unique content from the VA,” Microsoft’s spokesperson said. “While the VA team consulted with our team under our existing contract, the Healthcare Bot can be launched by customers using the turn-key example at GitHub without any Microsoft assistance.” 

VA’s post indicates the bot was produced in a matter of three weeks. Developers and officials from the agency’s Office of Information and Technology, the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Connected Care, and the Veterans Experience Office together helped move it from concept to reality. 

“It has been incredible to see VA staff from across the agency come together and deliver creative solutions,” VA’s Chief Technology Officer Charles Worthington said. “This product is a great example of VA’s commitment to using new technologies to improve our services.”