Until then, some hospitals have been paying S$12,000 bonuses to staff who can rope in experienced nurses to share impossible workloads.

While resource shortages in ASEAN’s healthcare sector pre-date the global pandemic, pandemic hurdles of the past two years have pushed an overworked sector to the brink.

Health professionals across the region have been left to quell rising infections and maintain operations with dwindling supplies, while working longer hours to compensate for the significant talent crunch.

For instance, in Singapore, staff shortages in healthcare have even caused one hospital group to offer SG$12,000 to staff who can bring experienced nurses into the facility.

While the global pandemic has exposed a raft of challenges and areas requiring improvement, it has also highlighted how businesses, as well as the clinicians and administrative staff on the frontline, can benefit from digital transformation.

According to data from Ecosystm, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic saw 96% of healthcare providers surveyed across South-east Asia starting or re-aligning digital transformation plans last year, with a 44% rise in healthcare providers making process automation a focus since 2020.

Amid increasing technology appetites, automated processes enabled by AI and ML emerged as a way to plug resource gaps and improve experiences. The challenge now lies with how healthcare providers can expand where and how they leverage technologies to navigate current hurdles and work towards a coordinated, region-wide response to healthcare.

Conversational AI in digitalized healthcare

The advancement of AI technologies has created greater opportunities for healthcare providers to supplement the work of doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff who already do not have enough hours in the day to juggle administrative tasks amid their core duty of caring for patients.

For instance, the conversational AI capabilities of a chatbot can handle ‘frequently asked questions’ and everyday tasks: Let us say a patient has a question about the locations of COVID-19 test centers, the requirements for a test or when they can get their vaccination. Because these are frequently asked questions, once the query is voiced by the patient, the conversational AI capabilities instantly recognize the question and trawl through a repository of information to provide the answer.

To set up this functionality, healthcare providers need to design the thought process in terms of how questions are typically asked by patients, then identify and enter the commonly asked questions for automation through natural language processing (NLP), where conversational chatbots can match callers with the clinician best suited to solve their query.

Beyond this automation, existing medical records, call history, voice-based sentiment and data from the clinical decision support system, can all be integrated into the conversational AI, facilitating personalized responses catering to a patient’s particular needs and preferences.

In the event the technology cannot solve the query, a seamless handoff to a human advisor can smoothen the patient’s experience.

Freeing medical teams to do their best

Diverting routine administrative tasks to AI-enabled technology frees up clinical and healthcare support staff to focus on their core work while reducing unnecessary crowding in waiting rooms. This automation also allows the public to access health support without even leaving their abodes until the right moment.

While conversational AI is not intended as a replacement for healthcare provided by professionals, it acts as a sidekick for healthcare professionals and administrators by handling first-line calls and then elevating the patient experience through seamless service delivery.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, with resources already stretched and with ageing population set to increase, healthcare systems across the region need to re-think current models of distributing staff skills and productive time in order to stop playing catch-up and start thriving on a cohesive and proactive approach to patient care.