Banner Health revamping doctors' offices in the wake of COVID-19 with virtual waiting room

In the wake of COVID-19, healthcare providers will need to rethink the traditional waiting room experience.

Phoenix-based Banner Health is taking that step with the launch of a virtual waiting room across its Banner Medical Group practices. That encompasses 300 clinics across Arizona, California, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada and Wyoming.

Working with technology company LifeLink, Banner Health is using mobile chatbots to help patients remotely complete the paperwork and check-in processes for medical appointments before they step into the clinic.

It's part of the health system's initiative to reimagine the care delivery experience in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The traditional pre-visit process of walking into an office, filling out paper forms, reading instructions and then waiting for an exam room had to change, according to Jeff Johnson, vice president, digital business at Banner Health.

“The healthcare industry must rapidly innovate in order to ensure all patients can see their doctors again through safe, private, and convenient channels,” Johnson said in a statement.

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“The COVID-19 pandemic requires an entirely different level of thinking when it comes to providing routine patient services,” said Greg Johnsen, CEO at LifeLink. “Like the changes we are seeing in retail, healthcare providers need to adapt, and the waiting room experience is one area that will need to change."

Banner Health has used LifeLink chatbots to help hundreds of thousands of patients navigate emergency room visits. The concept of digitizing regular doctor appointment visits with a mobile, virtual waiting room chatbot assistant was a natural extension of the technology, Johnson said.

The virtual waiting room is being used for telehealth visits and in-person appointments to support COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and allow patients to safely access care across Banner's network of 1,500 physicians.

Through mobile devices or computers, patients can access the chatbots, which use automated conversational messaging to remotely accomplish tasks that were previously handled in person, including appointment reminders and updates, completing intake forms, telehealth technology instructions, and informing patients when to go directly to their exam rooms.

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One of the key benefits of chatbot technology is the ease of use, according to Johnson.

"Interactions that use natural language eliminate the need for user training and there are no apps or passwords required so it’s simple for patients to interact with us securely, on any device. We have seen high engagement rates as a result," he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely drive big changes in the physical environment of doctors' offices and hospital waiting rooms. Providers will have to turn to virtual tools to help minimize close contact between patients and with staff.

Healthcare software company Phreesia recently launched a "zero contact" intake tool that enables patients to check in for in-person office visits from their homes or cars.

"We are preparing for a future that is less reliant on the physical waiting room," Phreesia co-founder and CEO Chaim Indig said during the company's fourth-quarter and full-year 2019 earnings call in April.