Critical Update: How Veterans Shaped a Coronavirus Chatbot 


Chief Technology Officer Charles Worthington discusses how the agency rolled out new digital tools to help respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first emerged as a national crisis, veterans and their caregivers understandably flooded the Veterans Affairs Department’s phone lines and other communications streams with questions about their needs and agency-provided medical care.

To address the surge in demand, the department rapidly produced its first-ever chatbot. 

“We knew that we wanted to get information out to our veterans as quickly as possible and in a variety of formats that would kind of meet them where they were,” the agency’s Chief Technology Officer Charles Worthington explained.

In Nextgov’s latest episode of Critical Update, Worthington, and Presidential Innovation Fellow Dr. Kaeli Yuen—who were both on the frontlines of the bot’s creation—detail what went into launching the chatty digital assistant and reflect on the importance of prioritizing customer experience, even as things are moving swiftly amid a global health emergency.

The agency custom-built the chatbot using Microsoft’s Healthcare Bot service, which the tech giant opted to offer up free of charge during the pandemic, to help eliminate bottlenecks in the contemporary health system. A user session tapping into the tool begins with the prompt “What do you need help with today?” Users can then select from a range of veteran-specific topic areas such as health care, appointments and prescriptions; debt, copay and financial concerns; anxiety and related claims, and more. From there, the bot continues to generate further questions and information, based on users’ responses.

The wants and needs of the chatbot’s primary users were considered across the development process—and even down to that initial question, the agency’s officials noted. 

“Veteran input really went into every step of the way,” Yuen explained, adding that big decisions were made with vets as a priority, as well as “smaller decisions like what type of language do they like to have in the beginning—do they want the chatbot to say ‘I am here to help you’ or ‘we are here to help you.’”

On top of producing the bot in less than a month, the agency developed and unveiled a range of other technical resources to support VA personnel, and vets as their needs shifted during the national lockdown, which Worthington highlights in the episode. He also shares a glimpse into how customers have responded to the new tool, and how VA officials will use their learnings going forward. 

“I think we're getting indications that people like this style of interaction,” Worthington noted.

You can listen to the full episode below or download and subscribe to Critical Update in Apple Podcasts or Google Play.