In partnership with the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) Office of Connected Care and the Veterans Experience Office (VEO), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Information and Technology (OIT) recently launched an interactive VA coronavirus chatbot.
The problem: A nationwide coronavirus pandemic leads to a surge in call volumes
Since the implementation of nationwide public health measures on physical distancing in March, VA contact centers have seen a significant increase in calls from Veterans with concerns about COVID-19 and how it affects their VA health care and other benefits and services.
This rapid surge in call volume led to frustrating hold times for Veterans, staffing challenges for VA, and delayed access to clinical advice for callers with urgent health care needs
The solution: An agile team rapidly builds a tool to help Veterans and relieve pressure on contact centers
In keeping with OIT’s agile methodology, the team developed and launched the chatbot in just 3 weeks. Along the way, they tested several iterations directly with Veterans and incorporated feedback to ensure the tool meets Veterans’ actual needs. Denise Kitts—VEO’s executive director of multichannel technology—and Kathy Frisbee—VHA’s executive director of connected care—say leveraging existing digital tools played a major role in the rapid development and release of the new chatbot.
“We were able to leverage the Microsoft Healthcare Bot service that was used to launch the CDC chatbot. We could also quickly leverage authoritative content developed for other channels.”
What Veterans are Saying
“This is helpful. Never used secure messaging or telehealth before. I’ve done everything through the phone until now.”
“With my experience with chat I would probably go there [chatbot] first [before calling]. I would probably be able to get help quicker with the chatbot.”
“My first instinct would be to click ‘ask another question’ [as opposed to contact representative] because the call centers are usually backed up.”
The chatbot serves as a resource to better meet Veterans’ increased need for information and services and as a tool to reduces center call volume so representatives can help callers with urgent medical needs as quickly as possible. Hosted on the Microsoft Healthcare Bot service, the chatbot features an interactive question-and-answer format that helps Veterans get guidance for when to seek medical help for their symptoms, based on the latest CDC self-checker tool, as well as answers to common questions about how COVID-19 may impact VA health care and other benefits and services.
Charles Worthington—VA’s chief technology officer—applauded the technologists, analysts, and partners across VA and private industry who collaborated to deliver this innovative IT solution.
“At VA, our number one priority is delivering excellent customer service to our Veterans. During this unprecedented pandemic, it has been incredible to see so many VA staff from across the agency come together and quickly deliver creative solutions to new problems. This product is a great example of VA’s commitment to using new technologies to improve our services.”
Several organizations around the country such as Virginia Mason Health System, Novant Health, and Walgreens have released similar tools to assist Veterans and health care workers. Like the CDC, who recently made multiple updates to their chatbot such as changes to multiple language strings as well as to reporting outcomes and localization patterns, OIT will continue to test the chatbot with Veterans and update features and content to meet evolving needs during and beyond the pandemic.
Veterans and their family members can access VA’s coronavirus chatbot through VA.gov. We’ll soon be adding access on other platforms, including individual medical facility websites and MyHealtheVet, where Veterans can refill prescriptions online and schedule telehealth appointments with their VA medical centers.